Prolific documentarian Alex Gibney returns with this semi-biopic of disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong.
There’s a sense that Lance Armstrong represents the very extremes of human nature. The competitive spirit inherent to all of us is embodied by him so furiously that he comes across as a microcosm of one facet of the human condition; that ruthless desire to emerge victorious from life’s race, regardless of the cost. And that cost has been high for Armstrong, who through his very public performance-enhancing drugs scandal has lost friends, respect, an almost holy public image and seven Tour de France medals.
His critics deride him as evil, including in the film, and his friends defend him as a sportsman. The tag of ‘evil’ is clearly misguided, Armstrong’s primary flaw is one we all share to an extent, and to claim he exists separately from the rest of us is false. He is not inhuman, but nor is he merely a sportsman – Armstrong is an obsessive competitor, a pathological liar and a man detached from morality and empathy. He is a tragic character, simultaneously the protagonist and antagonist of this film.
Gibney reluctantly admits that his documentary began as a fluff piece to coincide with Armstrong’s comeback to competitive cycling. After the doping news broke, the footage was shelved and only re-appraised when the story began to take shape and form a conclusive whole. Now, the culmination is a film confused by its own existence, it feels wrought and disappointed, let down by the dramatic revelations of Armstrong’s cheating, reflecting the emotions of its director.
Through science, contemporary interviews and recent testimony, the extent of the lie is revealed to us. Despite the story’s ground being well-trodden by widespread journalism, it still feels fresh, perhaps even incomplete, and there’s an element of shock that remains, particularly for Armstrong’s die-hard fans.
And yet, despite it all, I can’t help but come back to a singular piece of information that is referenced in the film. Armstrong’s cancer charity, Livestong, which came to prominence on the back of his competitive success and driven personality, has raised over $30o million for suffering people. No matter how deeply the lie runs, that money still exists and cannot be tainted. And as such, for all his legions of distraught fans and bitter fellow cyclists, his legacy will always retain one remarkable light of positivity, an afterglow that cannot be expunged from the history books.