With The Armstrong Lie, documentarian Alex Gibney unpacks the psychology of one of sport’s most notorious cheaters. And the Oscar-winner is no stranger to mendacity – his previous credits include Taxi to the Dark Side (about the CIA’s use of torture), Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer. But unlike those other projects, Gibney was actually welcomed into Armstrong’s web of deceit. Gibney’s first take on the subject, which was going to be called The Road Back, followed the racer during his 2009 return to the Tour de France. But when doping allegations surfaced in 2011, Gibney shelved the film and waited for the dust to settle. He picked it up again with an interview conducted just three hours after the cyclist’s captivating sit-down with Oprah, in which he revealed that he had used performance enhancing drugs. Although the documentary focuses less on groundbreaking scoops and more on the psychology of deceit, Gibney offers a comprehensive view of a long brewing scandal, and the corrosive power of win-at-all-costs ambition. Here are the film’s 10 juiciest moments.
1. Blood doping is no joke
When Armstrong and his teammates first started their blood doping regimen, the tests were easy to defeat, and initially there was no way to detect EPO (erythropoietin) – the powerful, endurance booster they abused. As the tests caught up with them, the cyclists dodged them by using microdoses and careful scheduling. In some cases they even finished their transfusions on a bus surrounded by reporters and cycling brass.
2. “Doping Doc” Michele Ferrari, while clearly a creep, is also sort of a genius.
In a rare interview, the Italian physician (and Armstrong’s coach) who trained him during his seven Tour wins, admits that he continued give Armstrong “advice” long after the two had publically cut ties. Ferrari was sentenced to a year in prison in 2004 (he was later acquitted), and in 2012, the United States Anti-Doping Agency banned him from professional sports for life.
3. Alberto Contador is a badass.
Gibney includes captivating footage of Armstrong’s feud with teammate Alberto Contador, who raced alongside the Texan in 2009 and didn’t let him win that year’s tour. Instead, Contador took home the win and Armstrong finished third.
4. Lance is just like us – sort of.
Before the 2011 allegations surfaced, Gibney’s film was a softer triumph story that some worried would end up as a puff piece. But due to of this sense of safety, Armstrong gave Gibney unprecedented access. We see the cyclist goofing around with his teammates, musing in hotel rooms and ranting at officials who surprise him with at-home drug tests.
5. Armstrong was tight with the Tour de France brass
Gibney provides even greater insight into the cozy relationship Lance shared with the International Cycling Union, cycling’s governing board. Armstrong says there were “hundreds” of conversations with UCI officials where he was warned his drug tests were “flying too close to the sun.” The film also implies there was a conspiracy involving UCI head Hein Verbruggen that was designed to protect the famous racer.
6. Don’t ever, ever think about crossing Lance. . .
Armstrong is an expert at discounting anyone who tries to speak out against him; in many ways, the war against his detractors was worse than the doping itself. The film highlights the guts of longtime friend Betsy Andreu, the wife of a former Armstrong teammate, who was the one of the first people to say Armstrong used performance-enhancing drugs.
7. . . .because you don’t bring a knife to a gun fight
Gibney points out that the Tour de France presents such an absurd challenge to the human body that the concept of pain reduction, recovery and chemical enhancement is as old as the race itself, dating to the days when riders cured their wounds after each stage at the local bar. In the film, Armstrong uses a similar everyone-was-doing-it defense to explain how the doping began – and why he didn’t stop.
8. When in doubt, he played the cancer card.
Gibney argues that the Livestrong Foundation and Armstrong’s open discussion of his cancer offered a way to rationalize the lie to himself and ultimately provided an out if anyone questioned him.
9. Returning to the scene of the crime
The film makes a clear case that Armstrong would have gotten away with it all if he hadn’t returned to the tour in 2009. Why Armstrong made that decision is film’s most intriguing question.
10. Gibney is pretty sure he’s still lying.
As the director told Rolling Stone at the Toronto Film Festival, Armstrong most likely wanted to ride clean – but probably didn’t. “[Lance said], ‘I came back and I intended to ride clean.’ He didn’t say, ‘I rode clean.’ He says, ‘I intended to ride clean.’ I find that very interesting. And I think he did intend to ride clean. But when it came to a choice between being on the podium or using that bag that he had for insurance. . . you can’t just decide to dope at the last minute. When you blood dope, you have to prepare for it in advance.”