Movie review: Documentary uncovers Lance Armstrong's messy 'Lie'

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It started as "The Road Back" and ended as "The Armstrong Lie."

This is why they're called working titles because they sometimes change. Drastically.

Along the way, even filmmaker Alex Gibney bought into the myth that cyclist Lance Armstrong, having vanquished cancer, won seven Tour de France titles and was a serious contender in an eighth, all without banned substances or performance-boosting blood transfusions.

'The Armstrong Lie'

Rating: R for language.

"Looking back on that moment now, I admit that I was caught up. I wasn't naive about past doping allegations, but I couldn't help but root for the old pro. He promised he was doing it clean," acknowledges Mr. Gibney, who also narrates the film.

He set out to make a documentary about the champion athlete coming out of retirement and returning to the world's most physically grueling competition. Mr. Gibney was, literally, along for that ride but later found himself trying to understand why Mr. Armstrong lied and how he deflected charges for so long and with such vigor and success.

At its simplest, Mr. Armstrong doped and he lied and along the way he inspired millions of cancer patients and survivors, many of whom felt angry and betrayed when he dropped the facade. What more is there to say or film?

Turns out, a fair amount although Mr. Armstrong remains an elusive figure driven by a killer competitive drive, blessed or cursed with the ability to lie with conviction, and mindful of how authorities were gunning for him when he announced his return to racing.

Mr. Gibney, who won an Oscar for his "Taxi to the Dark Side" documentary and was nominated for "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," is no stranger to complex narratives. After all, he directed "We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks" and "Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God," too.

He started filming in late September 2008, tracking Mr. Armstrong through his training and attempt to win the Tour de France in July 2009 (he ended up third) and again the next year (a 23rd place finish).

By late 2010, the writer-director had gathered more than 200 hours of material and virtually finished the film when he realized he would have to shoot more interviews and drastically reshape the documentary. In May 2010, a former teammate accused the cycling champion of doping and the floodgates started to open.

In January 2013, Mr. Armstrong confessed to Oprah Winfrey, powerful footage included here, and the filmmaker spoke to the cyclist afterward. As he said, "I didn't live a lot of lies. But I lived one big one."

"The Armstrong Lie" is well-sourced, featuring Mr. Armstrong before and after along with interviews with fellow teammates, sports journalists and Italian Michele Ferrari, Mr. Armstrong's longtime physician and coach.

Mr. Gibney successfully used early prototypes of GoPro cameras to put moviegoers in the middle of the races, and he complements that pulse-racing footage with music to mimic the excitement.

Less well documented is the exhaustion of the competition, and no matter how much he tried to update his project, it feels front-loaded and somewhat incomplete in terms of the fallout from the doping confession and the stinging betrayal felt by those wearing the yellow rubber Livestrong bracelets.

Mr. Armstrong isn't one to cry for the camera, and you wonder what he told his five children, a few of whom appear fleetingly, about his fall from grace. Even with the doping, his accomplishments were remarkable, but at age 42 and under the shadow of "The Armstrong Lie," he faces more roadblock than road back.

Opens Friday at the Harris Theater, Downtown.

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