The best sports films are less about sport than sportspeople. As the calibre of filmmakers – J.J. Abrams, Stephen Frears, Jay Roach – also planning movies about Lance Armstrong suggests, Alex Gibney’s documentary has a corker in cycling’s fallen angel.
It might have been good enough had Gibney made his proposed celebration of the seven-times Tour de France winner, cancer survivor and charity hero’s comeback in 2009. Then Armstrong, after years of denial, got busted for using performance-enhancing drugs, confessed on Oprah and opened a bigger can of worms.
Gibney’s past-mastery at exposing lies (Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room, Mea Maxima Culpa) tells us he’s the man to do that probing. With lucid rigour and impressive access to the key players, he rounds up Armstrong’s teammates, critics, competitors, sports doctor and friends to anatomise the power conflicts, cover-ups and science pertaining to ‘doping’ in cycling.
Complicity stretches high and wide, with UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) activity, Armstrong’s denials and the desire to believe in his ‘inspirational’ story – Gibney isn’t immune – all helping sustain the myth.
Armstrong’s repeated evasions saddle Gibney’s account with some repetition of its own, but the thrillingly intimate race footage takes up some slack. There’s levity too, in evidence that competitors have long used drugs of some kind: vintage footage of cyclists pausing to knock back the beers gives the subject a light spin.
A similarly engaging yet more aggressive spin is served by Armstrong, whose drive, articulacy and ferocious fibs galvanise even dull press conference footage. Gibney never quite gets under his skin, but there’s an undeniable fascination in the spectacle of Armstrong concealing and confessing with equal self-assurance.
Does he still sleep OK at night after the scandal, as he claims? Who knows? But one thing is clear: the actors playing this lapsed idol in those other films may need performance-enhancing drugs of their own.
A master docu-maker gets the inside dope on a master dissembler. It requires stamina, but its charismatic subject exerts genuine magnetism.