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Review: ‘The Armstrong Lie’ doc tells how, but more importantly, asks why?

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The Armstrong Lie

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“I didn’t live a lot of lies, but I did live one big one.”

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So begins the new film from Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: Smartest Guys in the Room) about rise and fall of Lance Armstrong. This opening statement, given by a clearly somber and apparently repentant Armstrong, speaks volumes for not only him, but the film as whole.

After years of scrutiny, accusations, and denials, the fallen sports icon finally admitted to using banned performance-enhancing drugs and illegal racing tactics in late 2012. The fallout was damning and extensive for many involved, including Gibney. His film was originally supposed to catalog Armstrong’s triumphant 2009 return to cycling after a four year retirement, but was ultimately retooled after the scandal into a quasi-exposé and reluctant, first-person explanation by Armstrong himself.

The film portrays Armstrong as a very calculated and meticulous man (you do not get away with what he did – and for as long as he did – without possessing those traits). But as the quote above exemplifies, Armstrong is a difficult man to fully grasp. Sure, he readily admits (finally) to cheating, but he adds that little bit extra about not living “a lot of lies.” With Armstrong, everything around him is planned like a training regimen, particularly with the media and public. His words are chosen carefully, especially in a statement of this magnitude.

So what did he mean by it? Was that extra bit necessary? Is he trading a bunch of little lies for one big one? Is it supposed to make people overlook or lessen their feelings toward his “one big lie?”

It is amazing the depths Armstrong went to cheat, and even more so to cover it up. An intricate web of deceit, intimidation, and bold-face lies followed him everywhere and affected most he came in contact with over the years. There are as many people lined up to bring Armstrong down as there are to defend him.

Even before the scandal, Armstrong had a prickly reputation, and the film does not do him any favors in that regard. He comes across as cocky and superior (like he always has), and at times, insincere about his admission of guilt. But the public has always overlooked this because he was an American champion – and perhaps more importantly, a cancer survivor.

Well there is the rub, isn’t it? All those little yellow rubber bracelets. We can hate athletes for lots of different reasons, but it is infinitely harder to dislike someone who overcame so much and still ended up on top. He may have cheated in an athletic event (one in which everyone else was cheating too, apparently, the film lets us know repeatedly), but he and his foundation have raised hundreds of millions of dollars for cancer research and support over the years. He also made a tremendous amount of money for Nike and various other endorsements too, which only furthered his power and everyone else's willing to accept his deceit.

There is no greater example of the duality of Lance Armstrong than this. He went from champion to cheater, but his reputation as a cancer survivor/ambassador has never really wavered, despite his disconcerting personality. So how are people supposed to look at him post-scandal?

That is the question director Alex Gibney examines in The Armstrong Lie. In one of the most interesting aspects of the film, Gibney, who also narrates, injects himself into the narrative as he struggles with his own feelings toward Armstrong. Once a big fan and ardent supporter, Gibney feels betrayed by Armstrong on both a personal and professional level. Armstrong admittedly lied continuously to Gibney during the initial production (back several years ago when it was still a doc about just the comeback). When it came time, he felt that Armstrong owed him an explanation – and he ultimately gets it (though it appears to be more on Armstrong’s terms than his). But through this, the audience also gets to hear Armstrong’s explanation and are able to more comprehensively form their own opinion.

But is Armstrong's reasoning (that everyone else was doing it, therefore impossible to win without it) viable? Is it enough? I do not think it is and I am not sure Gibney does either. A cheater amongst cheaters is still a cheater.

Perhaps the more significant question would be, does Armstrong seem remorseful and genuine in his apology? Here again, Armstrong falls short. Is he sorry for cheating or is he sorry for getting caught?

This becomes painfully apparent mainly because of his so-called comeback attempt. What else did he have to prove after seven consecutive Tour de France titles? His hubris got the better of him. He thought he was above the law – thanks in large part to his celebrity, charitable activities, and clout within the sport. Whether he wants to blame it on the state of cycling at the time or the overall steroid culture in sports that is his choice, but it is clear, especially after seeing this film, that the only person to blame is Armstrong himself. The only question that remains is whether or not you forgive him – and that is for you to decide.

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The Armstrong Lie was recently shortlisted (with fourteen other films vying for five spots) for this year’s Academy Award for Best Documentary.

The Armstrong Lie is now playing at The Theatres at Canal Place, with showtimes daily at 11:35 a.m. and 2:35 p.m.

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