“The Armstrong Lie”: Riding circles around the truth

Lance Armstrong

“The Armstrong Lie” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. R, 2:03, three stars out of four.

“Lance Armstrong!” my daughter said when she saw “The Armstrong Lie” on our television. “That’s the astronaut, right?”

Close enough. For years, Lance was a hero on a par with Neil, not just one of the world’s top athletes but an inspiring cancer survivor and engaging celebrity. Sure, he was dogged by rumors of doping from his first of seven Tour de France wins in 1999, but which story would you rather believe?

Filmmaker Alex Gibney certainly bought Lance’s story, enough that he agreed to make a documentary about Armstrong’s 2009 Tour de France comeback. The movie was likely intended to be something of a puff piece for the Oscar-winning “Taxi to the Dark Side,” a human-sized tale of perseverance and endurance.

But then the doping allegations hit hard, Armstrong confessed to Oprah what most people already knew, and Gibney knew he had been duped. He made “The Armstrong Lie,” which ends up being the movie behind the original movie, a hard-edged look at the real Armstrong fueled not just a little by Gibney’s sense of personal betrayal.

In peeling back the layers of Armstrong’s lies, what’s striking is that, in the context of things, it’s not the doping that really raises your ire about Armstrong. He argues that everyone in cycling was doing it and he needed to follow suit in order to be competitive. (Armstrong’s claim to Oprah that he wasn’t “cheating” because of this, much derided a year ago, makes a little more sense in this context. It’s still wrong, but understandably wrong.)

What’s unforgivable is what Armstrong did to protect that lie, viciously destroying friends and rivals alike in the press, trying to outspend his accusers by filing libel suits to counterattack, even rhetorically hiding behind the cancer survivors who looked up to him as a defense. I suppose it’s not surprising that a man who will win at all costs on the road carries the same hyper-competitive nature off the road, but it’s still enraging to watch.

Most fascinating is Armstrong’s 2009 comeback, where he hoped to rewrite his own ending by racing and winning the Tour de France unquestionably clean. He came in third (whether he was clean is still in doubt — Armstrong insists he was), but the return to the spotlight was his undoing. He was like Robert De Niro at the end of “Heat,” about to make a clean getaway — but just has to turn back to settle one more score.

Gibney interviews Armstrong again in June of 2013, the disgraced, banned-for-life athlete still trying to put his own spin on the truth and salvage his reputation somehow. But his credibility is gone forever. “The Armstrong Lie” is an act of atonement, but not for Armstrong, but for Gibney. An acclaimed documentary filmmaker let himself get snookered like all the rest of us — and goes back twice as hard for the truth.

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