Movie Review: “The Armstrong Lie” Is Fascinating And Heartbreaking

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Review by James McDonald

A documentary chronicling sports legend Lance Armstrong’s improbable rise and ultimate fall from grace.

Lance Armstrong. The name induces so many different reactions, depending on who you talk to. A few years ago, if you had mentioned that name to most people, you’d more than likely have gotten responses like “Cancer Survivor”, “Hero” and “Winner.” Today, those responses would come back with a resounding “Cheater”, “Drug User”, “Liar” and “Fraud.” And not because someone didn’t like him or not get on with him and accused him of being all of the above as a way to exact some revenge, no, because he himself came forward and, after years of probing and accusations from former friends and teammates, stating that he used performance-enhancing drugs, and years of him denying them all, he finally admitted the truth: he was indeed a cheater, a drug user, a liar and a fraud.

Filmmaker Alex Gibney followed Lance Armstrong around for four years with the intent of chronicling his return to cycling after retirement, as Armstrong tried to win his eighth Tour de France. Unexpectedly, Gibney was also there when Armstrong admitted to doping, lying, and cheating, which resulted in the film being re-titled from “The Road Back” to “The Armstrong Lie.” I had never been a big Armstrong supporter. I knew that he had beaten testicular cancer and had won seven Tour de France tournaments but this being a sport, and me not being a sports person, I just never really kept up with what he was doing. To me, the fact that he had beaten cancer and had set up foundations to help others with cancer, I liked that about him. Here was this famous and successful sportsman who was using his fame and wealth to help others. What was not to like about him?

I had of course, heard rumblings over the years like so many others, on the TV and in the newspapers, that he had used performance-enhancing drugs such as EPO, Testosterone and Cortisone, to name but a few but nothing ever seemed to happen. However, in January of 2013, Armstrong sat down with Oprah Winfrey in a very candid interview whereby he admitted that everything that had been said about him over the years, from him using banned substances to boost his performance in all seven Tour de France tournaments and then lying about it all, was true. The whole world was shocked but for some who knew Armstrong personally, they were not. In watching “The Armstrong Lie”, we are introduced to former friends of Armstrong, and some former teammates who also admitted to cheating as well.

The way it was back then, everyone cheated, it was commonplace so what difference would it make? In Armstrong’s case, a world of difference. He would go on to become the most famous road racing cyclist in the sport’s history as well as a Cancer Survivor, who inspired millions worldwide. I found Mr. Armstrong very enigmatic and also very likable, even in the wake of his controversies. I enjoyed going back to the beginning of his life and his career, especially since I didn’t know much about this part of his life and seeing where he came from (Plano, Texas), an area I know very well. Watching him overcome testicular cancer with which the doctor’s initially told him there was a less than 50% chance he would survive, to him becoming the first American to win the La Flèche Wallonne and then, eventually, winning the Tour de France, seven times, was awe-inspiring.

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No wonder he was loved by millions. Mr. Armstrong obviously, with the success he was gaining, made a lot of enemies, many of them former teammates and friends. When some of these people, under oath, admitted to having witness Mr. Armstrong use performance-enhancing drugs or even admitted to hearing him attest to it, Mr. Armstrong went after them and was able to sue them for slander and defamation of character. Yet, watching old TV footage of him talking to the women of “The View” and “Larry King Live” and repeatedly denying all these accusations, even in court, under oath, refuting them all, I couldn’t help but feel pity for him. Not because he was a liar and a cheat and a fraud, I felt sorry for him because he obviously didn’t realize, or didn’t want to realize, just how big a hole he was digging for himself.

Like watching “Titanic”, when we finally see just how much Jack and Rose love each other, we hold out hope that they’ll live happily ever after but this being the “Titanic”, we know that it can’t end very well. That’s how I felt while watching this film. At times, I wanted to shout at the screen and tell him not to do this but to do that, turn left instead of turning right. I wanted the man who was an inspiration to millions worldwide, not just as a cancer survivor but also as an unstoppable athlete in the face of adversity, to realize what he was doing and stop, so that he could continue to be a beacon of light for those who had none, a voice for those who could not be heard.

I wanted Lance Armstrong, cancer survivor and Tour de France winner, not Lance Armstrong, cheater, drug user, liar and fraud. Director Alex Gibney delivers a truly exceptional film that tells the story of one of the great sporting crimes of the century. Do not think for one second that an interest in cycling is a prerequisite. Highly Recommended.

In stores February 11th

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James McDonald
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