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Watching Movies: "The Armstrong Lie"

By Rich Heldenfels Published: December 13, 2013

3.5 stars. Now playing at the Cedar Lee.

It seems that everything Lance Armstrong has ever touched has become, if not tainted, then certainly more complicated. that was certainly the case for Alex Gibney, an Oscar-winning documentarian who in 2009 set out to make a film with Armstrong about the cyclist's comeback attempt. Gibney had considerable access to Amstrong -- except on the biggest issue in the cycling champion's life, doping, which Armstrong denied to Gibney. The growing doping scandal put Gibney's film on hold. But, after Armstrong,  finally confessed to his misdeeds in an interview with Oprah Winfrey earlier this year, Gibbey felt Armstrong owed him another interview; that interview, along with older footage from throughout Armstrong's career and interviews with others in and out of Armstrong's circle, has led to the film bluntly titled "The Armstrong Lie."

And even that title seems a little soft,. There were many lies Armstrong told over the years as he denied doping and other techniques which, even if they were widespread in cycling, were violations of the rules -- and possibly acts of blatant fraud, particularly to the people sponsoring Armstrong's races.  There were also the acts of intimidation Armstrong practiced against people who accused him of doping, as his deep pockets and fame let him blast folks with far fewer resources. He was not shy about seizing and holding the moral high ground by bringing up his battle with cancer and his charitable work -- even when the people closest to him knew what Armstrong was doing. And there may yet be unrepented lies; Gibney's film notes there were questions about Armstrong's performance during one 2009 leg of the Tour de France, but that Armstrong maintains he was riding clean.

At the heart of all this, though, is Armstrong himself, someone who, in another observer's view, "just can't stand to lose" -- even if the consequences of trying can be damaging. The 2009 comeback, following years of retirement, was to Armstrong a chance to prove he could win while riding clean -- but it opened him up to additional scrutiny that resulted in his utter downfall. He tried to destroy people who used to be friends when they talked about his doping. Even when told he should scale back his cheating, there was something in Armstrong that couldn't; that he couldn't even cheat halfway, he had to go all out.

But even as he was doing that, Armstrong carefully crafted an image of a humanitarian, a strong competitor, a cancer survivor -- a multimillionaire, yes, but one who did good works and could be very charming. The one time I crossed paths with Armstrong was in 2006, when he hosted the ESPYs; I asked him if he expected the audience to be surprised by the PG-13 nature of some of his monologue.  "If  (people) lived with me, they would know that was actually a step down -- from R," he replied. (There are plenty of times in "The Armstrong Lie" when the language deserves that R.) Gibney even found himself caught in debates about the Armstrong image machine, his 2009 effort viewed skeptically by Armstrong opponents while it was in progress, even with Gibney's fine reputation. 

Yet this is why Gibney's documentary is so good. Yes, it is as fascinated with Armstrong himself and his ability to lie so often and so forcefully; the clips of his various televised denials are collected like drumbeats even as we viewers know that they are all lies. It is further fixed on the Armstrong image, shown again in the ease with which he gained platforms to denounce his foes. But it is also meticulous in the case against Armstrong, in reporting about massive doping schemes, about rivialries among cyclists (including among teammates), about the protective shield that the higher-ups in cycling built around Armstrong. The key argument in the film is that it is not about doping, but about power -- not only the power of cycling's authorities but the power that Armstrong gained and what he did to hold onto it. Much the way the singular "lie" seems inadequate, so it seems weak to call this a tragedy; it is a mass of interlocking tragedies, all leading back to Armstrong.

Fine film. Worth seeing.

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