The Armstrong Lie adds depth to Lance Armstrong's sordid saga

The big question I had before viewing Alex Gibney's The Armstrong Lie was whether I would really learn anything new about seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong's epic fall from grace. That's because the narrative of Armstrong's journey from cancer victim to bike race champion to disgraced doper is already familiar to most of us.

Gibney is perhaps the best — and certainly the most prolific — documentary filmmaker in America, with his films on the Enron scandal and Abu Ghraib in particular earning critical acclaim. He delivers the goods again in The Armstrong Lie, creating a film that clearly illustrates the hold Armstrong had on the many people willing to buy his story.

The two-hour documentary (now playing at BayWalk in St. Pete and the AMC Woodlands Square in Oldsmar) begins with footage of Armstrong telling Oprah Winfrey last January that he did in fact use performance enhancing drugs (PED's) during much of his bike racing career, shattering the illusions held by his most-diehard supporters that he hadn't engaged in such nefarious activities.

For those paying attention, the first serious evidence that Armstrong was doping came from a 2004 book L.A. Confidentiel: Les secrets de Lance Armstrong (L.A. Confidential: Lance Armstrong's Secrets) by sports journalist Pierre Ballester and Sunday Times sports correspondent David Walsh. You're probably never heard of it, since Armstrong's legal team successfully blocked the French tome's U.S. publication.

The walls of denial started crumbing sometime after Armstrong's former teammate Frankie Andreu and his wife Betsy testified in a deposition in 2005 that they had heard Lance confess to using PEDS (specifically testosterone, EPO, growth hormone, cortisone and steroids) in 1996 while in a hospital room battling cancer. Armstrong vehemently denied he said any such thing, and began an unrelenting attack on the couple.

At that time Armstrong had just retired after winning an unprecedented seventh Tour de France, the professional cycling world's major championship. He was on top of the world, engaged to a rock star (Sheryl Crow) and considered a humanitarian for the millions of dollars he was raising for cancer research through his Livestrong Foundation.

But it was all predicated on a lie.

Personally, I've always been of a mixed opinion about Armstrong. The fact of the matter is much of the professional sporting world — well, certainly Major League Baseball, at least — was awash in athletes using PED's beginning in the mid-to-late 1990s and throughout the aughts. Certainly not everyone, but many competitive athletes were doping — some were caught, others weren't.

Society and the media have chosen to make examples of some of these athletes more than others. In baseball, for example, it's currently Alex Rodriguez receiving the most ridicule — though it used to be Barry Bonds. But the culture of competitive cycling — and of all professional sports, frankly — makes it understandable (though not necessarily right) that athletes, especially the greatest ones, would go this route.

And as Armstrong (and the rest of us know now), it certainly wasn't just him who was doping. Like Bonds and Roger Clemens, he was simply the best of the best in doping, and his performance soared. But like those other top athletes, Armstrong's M.O. was deny, deny, deny, and trash anyone who dared suggest otherwise just in case. It was the vehemence and outright bullying of his critics that ultimately left Armstrong's reputation in tatters.

Enter Gibney.

In 2009, four years after he initially retired, Armstrong announced he was making a comeback at the Tour de France. Gibney was hired to document this, which pissed off the Andreus and other Lance critics who were disappointed that such a talented filmmaker was buying into Armstrong's propaganda. In on candid on-camera moment, Betsy Andreu even admits she couldn't believe that Gibney would "buy into the bullshit."

But while Gibney was editing his film in 2012, Armstrong's world began to collapse. That fall from grace then shaped The Armstrong Lie, with Gibney admitting to being duped by the charasmatic Texan. He conducts his own interview with Armstrong where the cyclist admits to having lied, and adds in never before seen footage of Armstrong's comeback in 2009.

So to circle back to the beginning: Did I learn anything new about Lance Armstrong? Perhaps not. But the film stands as a solid retelling of the story of a man who came back from stage-three testicular cancer to ascend to the greatest heights of celebrity before being taken out by his own hubris. If that's not a story worth documenting, I'm not sure what it.

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