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Philippe Thompson Written by Philippe Thompson
Nov. 2, 2013 | 8:30 AM

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Armstrong Lie

by Phil Thompson

Yes, we all know the story of Lance Armstrong: thanks to performance enhancing drugs, he won a record seven consecutive Tour de France races between 1999 and 2005.  The problem of performance enhancing drugs has been addressed across all sports and has become increasingly tiresome to the ears of fans and viewers world-wide.

However, to dismiss Lance Armstrong as just another episode of an athlete using steroids would be to “miss the mark” on a tale that evokes tragic heroes of old.

Director Alex Gibney, like many others, bought into the Armstrong hype.  Despite evidence to the contrary, Armstrong was emphatic that he was clean.  In The Armstrong Lie, Gibney set out to tell what he thought would be the greatest comeback story of all time: the legendary cancer-survivor-turned-cycling-god who comes out of retirement to compete for an eighth Tour de France title.

However, the USADA and the International Cycling Union derail Gibney’s project, and Armstrong’s career, when they strip Armstrong of all his titles and ban him from competing for life.  Seeing the Armstrong narrative in this new light, Gibney refashions his project—The Armstrong Lie—to present viewers with Armstrong’s fall from grace.

Based on Aristotle’s Poetics, Armstrong’s tragedy involves a beloved Lance who “falls from prosperity to misery through a series of reversals and discoveries as a result of a tragic flaw.”  As The Armstrong Lie demonstrates, Armstrong’s tragic flaw has nothing to do with performance-enhancing drugs, but with lying, specifically his justification and cover-up of his “big lie.”  In the film, Armstrong is basically a good person, but in order to perpetuate his lie, everyone close to him eventually suffers to varying degrees, thanks to Armstrong himself.

The film presents the narrative in three parts: (1) Armstrong’s “reversal” from confident champion to persecuted cyclist, (2) the “discovery” where we learn Armstrong actively worked to build his legend and conceal his lie, and (3) “disaster.”  Viewers of the film will empathize with Armstrong’s tragedy, feeling pity, perhaps, for a man who meant well, raising money for cancer research, but did more harm than good.  The film compels the viewer to self-introspection and in the end, catharsis.

Much like Hamlet, Armstrong had a chance to “walk away,” but instead he chose to stop living “the lie.”  Yet, while guilt may have driven Armstrong to finally make a public confession via Oprah, Armstrong is not contrite.  He justifies his actions until the bitter end.  The Armstrong Lie presents a complex figure: a man whose drive to “come off conqueror” eventually defeats him.

The Armstrong Lie demonstrates high production values and a compelling story. It’s more than Hamlet on bicycles; it’s a tragic, modern saga in its own right.

Running Time: 123 minutes / Rating: R
Opens in theaters November 8, 2013 – Sony Pictures Classics
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