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VENICE — Italy, Oscar-winning documentary director Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side) returns to a project he started over five years ago in The Armstrong Lie, which was initially envisaged as a film about champion cyclist Lance Armstrong’s 2009 comeback and now includes material shot after the 2012 revelation that the athlete’s insistent denials of ever having used performance-enhancing drugs were a lie.
The director of such recent, rigorously researched non-fiction exposés as Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God and We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks here makes a rare, somewhat unfocused film that doesn’t contain anything really new or insightfully argued for any casual viewer of ESPN or Oprah, whose tell-all interview with the seven-time Tour de France winner from January 2013 offered the starting point of Gibney’s second stab at making a documentary about Armstrong (he interviewed the athlete only three hours after the talk show queen’s grilling).
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Twin Venice and Toronto premieres, Gibney’s reputation and the high profile of the Armstrong doping case should nonetheless help put bums in seats for Sony Pictures Classics when it releases the title stateside, Nov. 8.
Gibney himself, heard in voice-over at several points, explains he’d originally wanted to chronicle Armstrong’s planned comeback in 2009, four years after his retirement from cycling that directly followed his consecutive 1999-2005 Tour de France wins. Like many other journalists and fans, Gibney acknowledges that the story of Armstrong — raised by a single mom in Texas and a cancer and subsequent chemotherapy survivor before becoming one of the best-known cyclists through his repeated Tour wins — was just too inspiring, hopeful and beautiful not to believe.
Though he was a self-described “fan” of his subject, Gibney admits early on that Armstrong “lied to his face” during the making of his failed 2009 film and he’s owed “an explanation on camera.” But there are no hard-hitting questions that Oprah didn’t already ask, though the film does go through greater lengths to explain how the various drugs (including EPO) and blood transfusions aided performance and went undetected for years.
Still, The Armstrong Lie feels more often like a possibility for the director to revive an abandoned passion project and try to turn it into something of a (cosmetically more appealing) Frankenstein’s Monster, using interview and some impressive Tour footage from the original film and some newly shot material to make what would finally turn out to be a quite absorbing but never riveting or revelatory overview of Armstrong’s career and testy personality.
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The film falls roughly into two halves, with the first hour providing the backstory on Armstrong’s career, with talking heads (Armstrong, ex-colleagues such as Frankie Andreu and George Hincapie and bicycling experts) and archive footage painting a picture of the cyclist as a head-strong and controlling leader who was just as much a fanatic on his bike as he was off it (“I was a bully,” he would later say to Oprah). After surviving cancer, he seems to have taken to heart the idea that “losing equals death.”
The second half dives into the 2009 race, including the nail-biting climb of Mount Ventoux that initiated the beginning of the end, and is contrasted with Gibney’s new interview footage. Throughout, editors Andy Grieve and Tim Squyres lay out the narrative quite clearly, though it’s often the material itself that lacks punch or new insights into a well-publicized phenomenon that has plagued the cycling sport — and cycling business; “everyone was making money” as the protagonist remarks at one point — for years.
One of Gibney’s key questions — why stage a comeback that would prove fatal and, in the long run, reveal and ruin everything? — is never forcefully addressed and there’s no satisfactory, in-depth answer that explains why Armstrong chose to use the performance-enhancing drugs and lie about it until very recently, when federal investigations were underway (they’ve since been halted). The filmmaker does hint at the possibility that Armstrong — who continues to claim he was “clean” during the 2009 Tour (in which he placed third) and its disastrous 2010 follow-up (23rd place) — is trying to influence his own narrative even in front of Oprah and Gibney’s cameras. It can’t be a good sign if your subject seems to have the last word.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Production companies: Kennedy/Marshall, Jigsaw Productions, Matt Tolmach
Writer-director: Alex Gibney
Producers: Frank Marshall, Matt Tolmach, Alex Gibney
Co-producers: Jennie Amias, Mark Higgins, Beth Howard
Director of photography: Maryse Alberti
Music: David Kahne
Editors: Andy Grieve, Tim Squyres
No rating, 122 minutes.
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