A filmmaker finds himself caught between the mythmakers and the myth busters.
The Armstrong Liewas one 15 documentaries that this week turned up on Oscar's short list, a group that eventually will be whittled to five films. The title of director Alex Gibney's film immediately tells us what the film is about, the "no-I-didn't-dope" lie that ultimately toppled cyclist Lance Armstrong from his perch as a celebrity athlete with an inspiring story. The kid from Plano, Texas, won the Tour de France seven times after surviving treatment for testicular cancer that had spread to his brain and lungs. Armstrong saw his particularly brutal bout with cancer as a battle in which loss equated with death, a view he extended to cycling. Gibney initially committed to making a film about Armstrong's 2009 comeback attempt; it was to be a story of heroic perseverance against impossibly long odds, the saga of a man intent on sending a message about his ability again to overcome life-threatening limitations. Then came the scandal about Armstrong's use of banned substances and his ultimate admission that he doped. Armstrong doped in a sport in which doping apparently was the rule rather than the exception, but that didn't exonerate him. I wouldn't rank The Armstrong Lie with Gibney's other work (The Smartest Guys in the Room and Taxi to the Dark Side), but it certainly draws the contrast (or perhaps lack of it) between the pre-confession Armstrong, who adamantly denied using banned substances and the Armstrong who wound up spilling the beans to Oprah. It's also clear -- from watching Armstrong in his various incarnations -- that he's a pretty compelling figure. Some call him "intimidating." Additional interviews include former teammates and Michele Ferrari, a science-oriented doctor who created the doping regimen Armstrong followed. For me, the Armstrong story suffers from a bit of old-news fatigue, but for cycling enthusiasts and those who want to gain some insight into the ego of a celebrity athlete, The Armstrong Lie works effectively and, alas, depressingly well.