Review: The Armstrong Lie


The Who album “Who’s Next” was meant to be a concept album, called “Lifehouse,” the follow-up to “Tommy.” It was meant to resonate with Eastern mysticism and spirituality and was so ambitious it was meant to make Tommy seem like a kid’s musical. But Pete Townshend had a nervous breakdown once he realized he couldn’t explain the whole of the narrative in a song sequence. Rather than release a muddled and confused concept album, he ended up pulling the best songs into a single album. The result, “Who’s Next,” is considered by many rock critics to be one of the great rock albums of all time.

That seems a fair backdrop by which to introduce the Alex Gibney documentary, “The Armstrong Lie.” I’m not going to claim that this is one of the greatest documentaries ever committed to celluloid, but there can be no doubt that the result from his failed attempt to document Armstrong’s comeback makes a far more interesting film than what he had intended.

We live in an age where many documentarians editorialize; they manipulate the watcher to adopt the filmmaker’s viewpoint rather than allowing the viewer to draw his own conclusions. Michael Moore’s work is a great example of this. As much as I might agree with many of his positions, I’d rather not be subjected to an agenda. Present the info and if the dots are there, I’ll connect them for myself.

Early on, as Gibney was working on this film, it was often criticized as a puff piece. I heard those exact words used in conjunction with it; even Betsy Andreu uses those words in the film when being interviewed by Gibney. Reduced to its most contrasting elements, the film began as a celebration of Armstrong, then rounded on him in the wake of the USADA Reasoned Decision. Imagine a rock doc that captures a band at the height of their popularity, then checks back in with them four years later as they are breaking up. You see the elation that comes with adulation, and then you see the recrimination that comes with the broken spell. Oof.

When I walked out of the theater, I had a headache. I’d ridden such bumpy course of emotions I was exhausted. That’s the particular genius of this film. When I sat down, I vowed that I’d simply allow the film to tell its story and try not to impose my will on what I thought the story should be. “Let’s just see what story he tells,” I told myself. What happened was that I was taken back to each of those seven Tours, reminded of the adventure of watching those races play out. I was transported back in time to roads in the Alps and Pyrenees, to a bar in St. Jean de Maurienne where when Armstrong shot into the grass after Joseba Beloki crashed, a woman I knew screamed at the TV, “He’s cheating! He’s cheating!” and how I thought to myself, “You have no idea. You’re as right as you are wrong.”

There was the ache of injustice I felt for the Andreus every time they appeared on camera, the loathing I tasted for Stephanie McIlvain when her voicemail to Betsy Andreu was played, the schadenfreude that made me smile when Floyd Landis said, “At some point you gotta tell people Santa Claus isn’t real.”

In the interviews, I could still see Armstrong’s old charm, but I could also see the bully, the bluster. And yes, there were the lies. Enough of them to base a movie on. Gibney sought out archival footage in forgotten corners, stuff I’d never seen. Further, in addition to the Andreus, he interviewed Bicycling editor-at-large Bill Strickland, as well as former editor Steve Madden. He also interviewed Armstrong’s bete noir, David Walsh, as well as “The Secret Race” coauthor Daniel Coyle. He even got time with Michele Ferrari.

The film never tells you what to feel, what to decide, but it did lead me to a conclusion I’d not considered previously. While it’s easy to point to Floyd Landis as the catalyst for Armstrong’s downfall, I now think we’d elevated him to such heights, polished his story to such a chromed reflection that our American sensibilities simply wouldn’t permit us to leave him on a pedestal. Once the comeback was set in motion, so was his downfall. Had there been no Landis, there would still have been Jeff Novitzky and Tyler Hamilton. If there’d been no Hamilton, there’d still have been Levi Leipheimer. We were going to tear the Armstrong myth down, with prejudice. It’s just what this culture does. In that, Armstrong is that most American of myths. The key, I believe, isn’t that we can’t abide a hero, it’s that at some point we come to understand that any story so lofty, so heroic, must be built on some sort of lie. As much as we profess, as a culture, to want saints, deep down we know they don’t exist and we seem to delight in knocking them down to expose the lies. Armstrong himself observes, it’s not that he “lived a bunch of lies;” it’s that he “lived one big lie.”

Armstrong’s story will endure, not just in cycling, but in sport; he is the modern Icarus, and Gibney’s film is a clear-eyed account of both the rise and the fall. It makes me wonder, who’s next?

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  1. Patrick O'Brien

    Thanks for a good review. My first thought was I needed to go see the film. My second thought was I have had enough of this topic. Tyler’s book, “The Secret Race” was enough of this for me. One Armstrong topic I have not seen examined is how much money the sponsors, teams, organizers, and sanctioning organizations made from the Armstrong years. This includes the U. S. Postal Service.

  2. Hoshie99

    Great article. I have a slightly different take. I don’t think our culture does not always eat its heroes – consider Steve Jobs who by all accounts was pretty difficult to work with as much as a product marketing genius.

    I think Armstrong’s downfall was not a story the public had to make; had he not been so vindicitive, or given Floyd, or the International cycling community such a final blatant dig with his comeback, he might still be thought of as a hero in my estimation and largely skated the PED thing.

    Almost all high achieving or famous people have correspondingly large egos. In his case, he could never let it go and he stayed too long at the party.

    Now, to your point, we love the “extremes” in our pop culture, so from greatest sports hero to biggest fraud is a storyline that people will gladly consume and popularize anytime.


    1. Author

      Hoshie99: I might be wrong, but my take is that we gave a bye to Jobs because he died after his cancer returned. It’s not okay to go after the sick or the dead. And with Armstrong, he’d never have attained the heights he did without the bullying, without that central lie, so the building blocks of his rise contributed directly to his fall. Agreed, he couldn’t let go, couldn’t walk away.

  3. Horst Muleman

    Is is interesting to watch how Armstrong is being made the scapegoat of systemic doping in over 100-years of professional cycling.

    Oh, that’s right, he was a meanie to a lot of people, so all the other Doper’s get a free pass.

    Last anyone checked, being a raging A-Hole was not against the law.

    You guys really need to move on.

  4. Patrick O'Brien

    Padraig: I agree with you that the “Armstrong 2.0” comeback complete with the “look at me picture book” was way too much. But, you have to admit, he knew how to handle the press. I always thought he took a course on how to do a press interview or conference. Anyway, when he rubbed it in everyone’s face, they started to go after him with more malice. I always wonder what it would have been like if he had stayed retired and silent.

  5. Eto

    Patrick, I really like what you have written.

    It is clear that you, like many of us at some point believed in the phenomenom that was Lance Armstrong. It could only happen in America, right? His story does refect our optimism and our arrogance.

    He did weave a brillant tale, on many levels. At his height, there were aspects of what he was doing that were worth admiring. In the end, they too were part of his smoke screen, i.e. eating like a monk, training like a mathmatician, using (and developing) the best technology, methods, etc.

    The TV ad Nike produced where Lance voices over a training ride where he goes by a hopital with kids fighting cancer, waving from the windows. That ironically ends with him asking what he is on. Some of that inspiration, albiet built on smoke and mirrors, was powerful. Like Hollywood, you are best to just sit back and be entertained versus finding real heros.

    It is easy to hold what we see and experience up to some standard that in the end few can measure up to. I am not a fan of Armstrong’s… but more for the way he treated people than because he cheated. We do not talk much about the fact that almost everyone else he competed with was also. They just were not as smart, shrewd or arrogant.

    Thanks for your work.

  6. Savvycyclist

    Thank you for another well written article. Every time I read this column, I feel like we are sitting down for a discussion, rather than getting a lecture. I like talking to you, even if I don’t say a word.

  7. sterling

    Maximus asks the crowd in the coliseum “are you not entertained?” well for 7 years, I was. do the lies and Lance being a tool matter? for me yes. All I can say is that with the possible TRC that things will be brought out in the open for all to see. forgive the sinner, not the sin.

  8. JPrumm

    I have been troubled about seeing the film. I don’t want to spend any money on anything Lance may profit from. I still don’t know if Lance get’s a cut. At one point I was a big fan of Lance and told myself “there is no way you survive cancer then put crap in your body that could destroy it”. Well we all know that wasn’t true. It felt a bit like being cheated on by your wife. A lot of use had an emotional investment in Lance and his story and that story didn’t end well.

  9. SusanJane

    I have no plans on seeing the film. That said I am reading the press about it. People are praising the film and slamming Lance — easy to do but it feels reactive in general. I did get a giggle when I wondered what would happen if it got a wide release. Think of the implications both good and bad. Sigh.

  10. Khal Spencer

    Good review, Padraig. Maybe I’ll have to see that.

    Drugs have been endemic to endurance bike racing (i.e., grand tours, six day races, etc) since these began. What has changed is the technology. Armstrong’s success was integrating scientific doping into the “…eating like a monk, training like a mathmatician, using (and developing) the best technology, methods, etc….” that Eto mentions, doing it better than the competition, and combining that with the personality of a bully. Kinda like the worst of those robber barons on Wall Street, he was better at gaming a rotten system than anyone else.

    That’s not meant to be an excuse for Armstrong. What he did was unethical and he was the king of the dopers. Like Icarus, he really did deserve his fall. Perhaps if he had not flown so close to the sun, he would be retired, still owning a bunch of yellow jerseys, and drinking a beer rather than living under a massive cloud.

    Bigger they are, harder they fall, eh?

  11. Adam

    While Lance should have been stripped of his palmares for what he did, I agree with @Horst Muleman that he’s been scapegoated for a generation of cyclists. It seems that by hanging Lance out to dry the problem of doping in cycling has now gone away. The rest of them should be receiving the same treatment. Just because LA was the ‘best’ at doping doesn’t mean the others are less guilty.

    Also, the parochialism of cycling is really starting to grate. That pillar of modern cycling (Eddy Merckx) was done 3 times for doping and yet he’s managed to hang onto his reputation, palmares and place as one of the all-time greats. How is it any different to LA?

  12. Javelin

    I’m with Adam on this one. Allegedly Jacques Anquetil once remarked when asked that riders do not complete the TdF by drinking spring water (I paraphrase)…how far back do we go to really clean up cycling?

  13. Fred Taylor

    I miss Lance, he was great for the sport. I am sorry he was slammed by Tygart. He really put life into the sport. About the doping and lying, well, that is the nature of cycling and pro sports in general. Great drama, great sport sorry to see Tygart extinguish Lance, a pity.

  14. dmyoungsal

    I too am with Adam and Javelin.

    If Lance had played nice with the others, I seriously doubt a lot of this would have happened. Rumors would have swirled, but as rumors go they would have gone away.

  15. MV2

    I hoped “The Lie” would provide a rare glimpse into the mind of a sociopath but that would be expecting to much from a film maker that tried to ride Lances coattails to some easy money like so many others. If you still have a man crush on Lance go see it. Otherwise why help anyone profit further off Lance. Go riding with a friend instead, it will be time much much better spent.

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