Armstrong Lie, The (Blu-ray Review)10 Feb, 2014 By: Mike Clark
Box Office $0.38 million
$30.99 DVD, $35.99 Blu-ray
Rated ‘R’ for language.
The second of two standout documentaries from Alex Gibney to play theaters last year, this portrait of a charismatic sociopath whose charisma is fully captured here is the next thing to a twofer home release in its DVD/Blu-ray incarnations. First, there’s the material we see on screen, which differs substantially from the portrait of Lance Armstrong that Gibney set out to make and initially did — before, that is, the cyclist finally affirmed doping accusations (to Oprah Winfrey, no less) that were an open secret to many insiders despite years of Armstrong’s denials. Then, for those who take the time to listen to the filmmaker’s essential bonus-section commentary, watching Lie (a choice of title that finally estranged Gibney from his subject) becomes a different experience.
This is because Gibney has to share with us the dilemma he faced once Armstrong’s admission pulled the rug out from under the filmmaker’s completed but now unreleaseable documentary. Entitled the more positive-sounding The Road Back, it was a more straightforward account of Armstrong’s comeback attempt to win his eighth Tour de France, subject matter that quickly became quaint once the cyclist owned up to his sins (or some of them). This must have been something akin to the gut-punch director King Vidor suffered when he’d completed most, but not all, of swan song Solomon and Sheba with lead Tyrone Power, only to have the latter drop dead of a heart attack on the set. Of course in a fictional film, you can always hire another actor and start over, but you can’t do that in a documentary.
In the second Gibney go-round that became the documentary that was ultimately released (with much of the original footage naturally incorporated), Gibney now had to become a character in his own film, which is something documentarians usually don’t like to do unless they’re named Michael Moore. After all, Gibney had been deceived as much as anyone else (and with higher stakes), though even the original version of the film had not been unmindful of the charges that had been swirling around for years. And the filmmaker’s part of the story is evident from the get-go of Lie because it begins with Armstrong in a follow-up interview shot by Gibney the same day and directly following the Oprah dustup. In fact, Gibney had gotten special permission to film on the Winfrey set while the beans were being spilled — an Oprah sit-down that did not go well for Armstrong in terms of his attempts to turn his sudden contriteness into some kind of public relations advantage.
Armstrong is far from the only cyclist who was doping, and there are times when you look at Lie’s supporting cast of characters and go, “Well, who wasn’t?” This is different, though. What makes the documentary so fascinating is the charm with which we see Armstrong repeatedly lie, the way he used his money and power to intimidate and silence his critics (very cruelly) and even co-opted the cancer community who held him in revered regard (Armstrong is a cancer survivor) and, to a degree, went down with his ship (or bike). Of course, everyone was making so much money off the sport and Armstrong’s reflected glory that it wouldn’t have been a percentage move to have definitively blown the whistle — though God knows, certain individuals tried. This is also a sport where those paid to promote it were also asked to police it, which by itself is enough (or should have been) to set off anyone’s B.S. barometer.
Gibney offers a pressure-packed commentary on all aspects of this definitive portrait, and, at the end, even talks about the documentaries and colleagues who have influenced him, from Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man to the works of Marcel Ophuls. Ultimately, I think Gibney’s 2013 We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks is even better, but the two together only solidify his still escalating rep as one of the most dependable of filmmakers of any kind now going, with a body of work that embraces Enron, the Catholic Church, the Chicago Cubs, Ken Kesey, Jack Abramoff … and those are just the opening salvos.