And while the film tells a compelling story in a strong, straightforward fashion, with some vividly colorful shots of world-class cyclists racing in stunning locales (including footage of Tour of California competition in Sonoma County) past cheering fans, and there's a nod to a few dogged sports writers (Daniel Coyle, David Walsh, Paul Kimmage) whose journalistic instincts told them from the get-go that Armstrong's story was too good to be true, "The Armstrong Lie" is ultimately a bit shopworn. Recycled.
There's a reason for this.
Alex Gibney, the award-winning filmmaker whose previous work includes unnerving investigations into business greed ("Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room") and immoral abuse of military and political power ("Taxi To The Dark Side") was an admitted Armstrong fan whose original idea for a cycling documentary was going to be an inspirational comeback story as Armstrong, at 37, in 2009 ended a three-year "retirement" and attempted to win the Tour de France for an eighth time.
As the '09 Tour progressed and it became clear that Armstrong (who claimed this time he was racing "clean") isn't going to win, Gibney and Armstrong joke on camera about the movie being "ruined."
But then Armstrong, ever the competitor, says that all things considered (his age, the three-year layoff), a third-place finish (and therefore a spot on the podium) would nevertheless be remarkable and Gibney agrees it would still make for a stirring film. Late in the race, when it looks like Armstrong will finish fourth, without a spot on the podium, the back-and-forth joking about ruining the movie is repeated, but with considerably more mutual frustration and less bonhomie. When Armstrong does finish third, it's unclear whether it was done through skill, contrivance, tried-and-true doping or a combination thereof. After the 2009 Tour, when the doping accusations began to gain serious traction, Gibney abandoned his film project. After Armstrong's appearance on "Oprah," he knew he had a movie after all, albeit an entirely different one.
And so he went with that. Hell hath no fury like a filmmaker duped.
But, after all, film or no film, we've known for a long time now that Armstrong was a champion liar who didn't merely deny doping allegations but often went after the accusers, either with deep-pocket lawsuits, character assassination or good old-fashioned macho bullying. Even if we were among the dwindling loyalists, that naivet?certainly ended 11 months ago when Armstrong, still steely-eyed and unemotional, appeared on "Oprah" and told us that for some 15 years he had been doping, he had demanded that teammates doped, and that for public consumption he had been editing out key elements of his "narrative."
The definitive Lance Armstrong story, which would have to include psychological insights into his feelings about never having known his father and real investigation into what motivated him to dominate for so long what is probably the toughest athletic accomplishment in the world while simultaneously conducting so massive a fraud, remains to be told.
"The Armstrong Lie" isn't it. Instead, it's a well-illustrated rehash of old headlines.
"The Armstrong Lie" proves, if nothing else and as if we needed any further proof, that it might be prudent to refrain from hero worshipping any athlete, no matter how charismatic, no matter how many victories, no matter how inspirational the backstory.
Read all of the PD's fire coverage here