“The disgraced hero at the center of one of the most compelling rise-and-fall narratives in recent years gets exhaustive and penetrating documentary treatment in The Armstrong Lie,” begins Variety‘s Justin Chang. “Focusing primarily on the past four years of Lance Armstrong’s life—from his 2009 post-retirement comeback bid to his recent admission that he had used performance-enhancing drugs, despite vehement denials over the course of his extraordinary career—director Alex Gibney delivers not just a detailed, full-access account of his subject, in all his defiance, hubris and tentative self-reckoning, but also a layered inquiry into the culture of competitiveness, celebrity, moral relativism and hypocrisy that helped enable and sustain his deception.”
But the Hollywood Reporter‘s Boyd van Hoeij finds that the “director of such recent, rigorously researched non-fiction exposés as Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God and We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks here makes a rare, somewhat unfocused film that doesn’t contain anything really new or insightfully argued for any casual viewer of ESPN or Oprah.”
“The problem is that Armstrong’s reputation as a consummate liar has rendered him all but uninterviewable,” argues the Telegraph‘s Robbie Collin: “when he looks down the barrel of the camera and tells you unblinkingly that he never took drugs in 2009, it rather undermines everything he has to say about regret and contrition and lessons learned in 2013.”
“On a scene-by-scene basis, it’s terrific stuff,” writes the Playlist‘s Oliver Lyttelton, “but it doesn’t quite come together as a whole. To begin with, the structure of the film feels rather choppy, and while it soon settles down, it becomes clear why. Gibney essentially shot a whole film, then entitled The Way Back, focusing less on the cheating allegations and more on the 2009 comeback attempt…. [I]t’s often clear that he’s essentially pasted one movie in-between scenes from another, and the result is both uneven, and rather over-extended, with the two hour runtime feeling a little fatty in places.”
Both In Contention‘s Guy Lodge and the Atlantic‘s Jon Frosch review The Armstrong Lie and Errol Morris’s The Unknown Known side by side. “Of course, it’d be a pretty vapid line of criticism to directly equate the docs’ subjects,” grants Guy Lodge. “Armstrong may be the biggest fraud in the history of recorded sport, but his sins have largely come at his own expense. That’s something that can’t be said for former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld…. What they have in common—and what seems principally to aggravate Gibney and Morris, both occasionally audible in their films as rather animated interviewers—is a certain faith-breaking status in contemporary American culture, a legacy of public distrust that, particularly in the case of a more romantic figure like Armstrong, has been symbolically extrapolated to realms beyond their personal reach.”
And Frosch finds that “Gibney’s own conflicted feelings toward Armstrong—awe and admiration mingled with a true fan’s fury at being duped—make for a compellingly nuanced depiction.”
Finally for now, Screen‘s Lee Marshall notes that there’s “still one big question remaining: why? Gibney’s engaging, punchy documentary, which includes footage of a post-confession interview the director conducted with Armstrong, probably comes as close to answering this as anyone ever will, without quite nailing a sportsman who, as this film makes clear, does not really do contrition.”
Update, 9/7: A new clip:
Update, 9/8: Nick Dawson‘s got five questions for Gibney at Filmmaker.
Updates, 9/11: “One of the significant points,” argues Anthony Kaufman at Sundance Now, is “how long and pervasive Armstrong’s deception was. For over a decade, he lied to the public so many times that the lie may have become almost real to him…. And here we find ourselves on classic Errol Morris territory: a person who believes a lie so much that it becomes essentially real to him, whether that person is Tabloid‘s Joyce McKinney or Mr. Death‘s Fred J. Leuchter.”
Gibney “openly admits, with a hint of self-disgust in his voice, that he too was taken in by Armstrong’s sheer brio,” notes Ashley Clarke, writing for Sight & Sound. “Yet when the credits roll, Armstrong remains a flinty-eyed enigma, and it also becomes clear that Gibney’s latent affection for his subject has stopped this film being the big takedown that would have been so satisfying.”
“If The Armstrong Lie doesn’t quite have the tragic beauty and natural symmetry of the racing documentary Senna, it nevertheless succeeds as a probing look into the mechanics of an epic lie,” writes Chris Michael for the Guardian. “And of course the irony is that it also stars a figure of magnetic charisma. Even when the subject is his own disgrace, Lance Armstrong carries the story.”
Update, 9/14: Anne Thompson‘s interviewed Gibney.
Update, 10/5: A new trailer:
Updates, 11/10: “F.U., Lance Armstrong, and the bike you rode in on,” writes New York‘s David Edelstein. “Sorry, I had to get that off my chest.”
For the Dissolve‘s Scott Tobias, “it seems impossible that Gibney, who has so often played an adversarial role, speaking truth to power, would ever be seduced by Armstrong’s phony story, no matter how seductive it remained as a tale of will, endurance, and triumph over adversity. Gibney wants to make a point about how so many people were eager to embrace that story, but counting himself among the duped seems fishy. It’s his own false narrative, useful for framing a feature-length documentary.” Gibney aims “to play the role of audience surrogate, the average guy-type who wants to believe, but he’s never convincing, because he can’t fake the babe-in-the-woods routine of someone like Nick Broomfield (Kurt & Courtney, Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam).”
“There’s no doubt that Lance Armstrong is an important and symbolic figure of our age, one who will long be remembered in the annals of sports and culture,” grants Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir. “But he’s not that interesting of a guy, and the more you listen to him the more boring he gets, which may explain why a documentary about him turns into a postmodern text about its own making and about its director.”
More from Ali Arikan (RogerEbert.com, 3/4), Marjorie Baumgarten (Austin Chronicle, 2.5/5), Kenji Fujishima (Slant, 2.5/4), Stephen Holden (New York Times), Ben Kenigsberg (AV Club, B), Joshua Rothkopf (Time Out New York, 3/5), and Chuck Wilson (Voice). Noah Taylor interviews Gibney for Indiewire.
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