There are two general narratives about Lance Armstrong, and in his new documentary, "The Armstrong Lie," Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney tackles them both, to varying degrees of success. The first is the fall from grace of an all-American hero following his unprecedented seven-straight-wins at the Tour de France between 1999 and 2005 as well as his unexpected comeback in 2009. The second is, arguably, more interesting, and it's the fact that practically every single professional cyclist was doping like a clubber at a rave. To paraphrase Deep Throat in "All the President's Men," everyone was involved.
Of course, this does not detract from the sheer mendacity, belligerence, and simple unpleasantness of Lance Armstrong, who comes across as the sort of guy you definitely would not want to sit down and have a beer with. Gibney originally intended his film to cover Armstrong's comeback (he'd actually completed the documentary, but hadn't screened it), but then the doping scandal hit the news. After some time had passed, Gibney changed his focus and revisited the footage. Gibney's film paints a picture of an overly ambitious man whose supreme, almost clinical, self-confidence severed his connection to reality and truth.
Alex Gibney's previous films, such as "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" and "Taxi to the Dark Side," tend to have a much more deliberate and assured structure, which this film lacks. Of course, given the complexity of the case itself, as well as the changing dynamics during production, this is an understandable constant that Gibney had to build his structure around. This makes the film at times have the subtlety of a steamroller (Did you know that the Tour de France is a mad, mad, mad challenge to the body and the mind?). It's unfortunate, but such is life.
This slightly disjointed aspect of the production makes certain individual scenes and moments stand out, yet they never quite come together. The lack of catharsis allows the viewer enough leeway to judge Armstrong for themselves, and that particular aspect of Gibney's film is much more fascinating than the "arrogant-pillock-dopes-and-lies" story.