Certainly the hardest working director in contemporary American documentary - The Armstrong Lie is his fourth feature in the past 18 months - Alex Gibney has made his name with hard-hitting, almost hard-news-like exposés of social, political and dysfunctional structures and secret agendas. But seldom has Mr. Gibney been so personally involved and his instincts as questioned as in his relationship with the since-disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong.

     What initially began as a documentary on Mr. Armstrong's return to the Tour de France in 2009 after a longish hiatus, seen by many as a "whitewash" or "puff piece" on a figure that was already controversial at the time for the accusations of doping that swirled around him despite his successful comeback from cancer surgery, ended up shelved. Real life caught up with both the director and his subject as Mr. Armstrong eventually admitted publically the extent of his lie, drawing Mr. Gibney back to the unfinished project. The end result, then, is not so much a tale of the rise and fall of the athlete as a bicycle racing star, but also a questioning of unquestioning media and institutions, an investigation into the nature of truth and lies where morality is constantly shifting, and a film about storytelling as the "new normal" of celebrity culture.

     What's at stake in The Armstrong Lie is not so much whether the cyclist actually took performance-enhancing drugs; pretty much everybody on the Tour de France did during the 2000s, and to pretend otherwise is to feign an idealism that, sadly, seems to no longer have either space or place in professional sporting events. Mr. Gibney is much more interested in asking, and eventually understanding, why Mr. Armstrong would insist on keeping up a facade of lies and how so many kept on believing in him even after red flags started coming up - and, more to the point, why he himself, an experienced "myth-buster", found himself fooled by the athlete's practiced "myth-making".

     But there's never really an answer to that, other than admitting that people do prefer to believe in the lie for the sake of some peace of mind or the avoidance of constant disappointment. The Armstrong Lie asks a lot more questions than it knows how, or wants, to answer within its running time, and Mr. Armstrong himself seems oddly detached, unwilling to actually admit or explain why he did what he did. What Mr. Gibney ends up doing is a zippy primer of the case against the cyclist, one that exposes the moral bankruptcy at the heart of many modern spectator sports organizations while meditating on what fame and power do to people, but leaves the filmmaker as lost as its viewer as to the whys, the hows, and the whether it'll happen again. The truth is out there, but can it set you free?

Director and screenwriter: Alex Gibney
Cinematography: Maryse Alberti  (colour)
Music: David Kahne
Editors: Andy Grieve, Tim Squyres, Lindy Jankura
Producers: Frank Marshall, Matt Tolmach, Mr. Gibney  (The Kennedy/Marshall Company in association with Jigsaw Productions and Matt Tolmach Productions)
USA, 2013, 123 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Columbia Tristar Warner screening room, Lisbon, November 6th 2013


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