In “The Armstrong Lie,” Alex Gibney's absorbing but overlong documentary portrait of Lance Armstrong — begun after he won the Tour de France seven consecutive times (1999-2005) — Armstrong exhibits an unwavering poise and an almost robotic self-possession and air of superiority, with barely discernible blips of defiance and irritation. In the face he presents to the camera, he is still a winner, despite having been stripped of his titles for doping.
The clench of his jaw, his inscrutable gaze and the steady tone of voice suggest a star ensconced within the bubble of his celebrity. Even his admissions about the performance-enhancing drugs that helped enable his victories sound like the pro forma gestures of an athlete determined never to lose his cool in front of the camera.
The film was started in 2008, the year before Armstrong's return to competitive cycling after a three-year retirement, and was all but completed a few years later. Filming resumed hours after his January 2013 television interview with Oprah Winfrey, in which he admitted doping. In the footage Gibney initially shot, Armstrong lied about taking drugs. That's one reason “The Armstrong Lie” feels like two movies — a before and after — roughly stitched together.
One question asked by Gibney, who narrates the film, is why an athlete whose reputation seemed secure after his retirement returned to competition. Was it a sense of invincibility? Was it the prospect of a future without the thrills and risk-taking of his glory days?
The first half of the film looks back on Armstrong's youth, when he was a ferociously competitive, self-described bully. His stated belief that “losing equals death” was probably reinforced by his near-miraculous recovery from testicular cancer through treatment that included brain surgery in late 1996. The following year, he founded what became the Livestrong Foundation for cancer research and the support of cancer survivors. The film barely addresses the accomplishments of Livestrong, from whose board Armstrong resigned in November 2012.