*** (out of four)
The questions that must be addressed in a documentary about disgraced cycling champ Lance Armstrong’s fall from stardom are, obviously, “How could he?” and “What was he thinking?”
Long intrigued by controversial figures, director Alex Gibney (“We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks,” “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer”) answers in effective but somewhat limited fashion. “The Armstrong Lie” depicts Armstrong as someone whose refusal to lose compelled him to win at all costs—and to justify it based on the sport’s culture of cheating and his LiveStrong organization’s good deeds. When the film captures its subject coming clean (after being backed into a corner) only to still seemingly hang on half-truths or deceptions when possible, it’s a tragic moment that should make the last few people not disgusted by this liar change their minds.
The film, fortunately, doesn’t aim to attack Armstrong from all angles. Initially attempting to document the seven-time Tour De France winner’s 2009 comeback (which preceded the stripping of all his titles, of course), Gibney admits that he became a fan, rooting for the cancer survivor and global icon to earn redemption on two wheels. For a brief period, Armstrong did. Yet it’s clear his naïve confidence about his own power and the power of deny-deny-deny led to nasty attacks on his critics and spurned friends/teammates like Floyd Landis, who only became extra motivated to expose the truth. Had Armstrong not attempted his post-championship comeback, or been so defiant in going after those who sought to set the record straight, we might still see him as a hero.
This story is bigger than that, though. Gibney misses a chance to incorporate other professional athletes (including Ryan Braun and Mark McGwire) who deluded themselves into thinking they could get away with breaking rules. “The Armstrong Lie” often focuses on specific events and a revolving door of talking heads instead of zooming out and addressing what this all means. Including a psychologist wouldn’t have hurt.
It’s compelling anyway. Interviewed by Gibney earlier this year, Armstrong still says he’s the only person who can reveal the truth, despite the many people who long knew what he was up to and his current lack of credibility. In some ways, the most powerful lies are the ones we tell ourselves.
Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U
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