The fascinating and perplexing documentary "The Armstrong Lie" was not the documentary that filmmaker Alex Gibney intended to make, but it is the story he needed to tell.
Gibney had started out making a documentary about cyclist Lance Armstrong's 2009 comeback attempt, his drive to return to cycling and win an eighth Tour de France title and put to rest a career's worth of rumors and accusations that he cheated through doping and blood transfusions.
Those accusations only got louder on the 2009 comeback ride, leading to a federal investigation, a lifetime ban from sport and the stripping of Armstrong's seven Tour de France titles. Then, this January, Armstrong sat down for an interview with Oprah Winfrey, to whom he confessed that he had been doping when he won those seven titles.
Gibney who had shelved his film, then titled "The Road Back," during all this was there for the Oprah interview and told Armstrong that the cyclist owed him one more interview. Armstrong gave Gibney that interview, which forms much of the backbone of this reconstituted documentary.
First, Gibney lays out the facts, chronicling Armstrong's rise in the cycling world along with his amazing backstory: A cancer survivor, he willed himself not only back to health but to the pinnacle of his sport. Gibney also chronicles how Armstrong built himself into a brand as a corporate pitchman and as spokesman for his cancer-survivor charity, the LiveStrong Foundation the group advertised by those once-ubiquitous yellow bracelets.
There were doubters and skeptics all along the way, but Armstrong managed them. Those he couldn't shout down he humiliated, and several cyclists who were once Armstrong's teammates tell Gibney about being blackballed by other cycling teams.
Gibney frequently compares Armstrong's statements, past and present, as the cyclist tries even after the Oprah confession to control the narrative. This is where he is aided by a fine ear for lying, one honed by going after financial fraud ("Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room") or mistreatment of Afghan detainees (in his Oscar-winning "Taxi to the Dark Side") or the inner workings of WikiLeaks ("We Steal Secrets").
This time, though, there's something intriguingly personal about Gibney's line of attack. In his other films, the lying was aimed at us as a society. Here, the lie didn't just fool the world; it fooled Gibney himself, as the journalist got swept up in Armstrong's self-invented storyline.
He wanted to believe in Armstrong's comeback, his media-touted greatness, as much as anyone else and when the lie fell apart, Gibney felt as betrayed as the rest of us. That betrayal makes "The Armstrong Lie" more than just another exposÃ© of a fallen hero, but a thoughtful examination of why we create such heroes in the first place.
'The Armstrong Lie'
A look at Lance Armstrong's rise and fall also exposes the human need to create heroes.
Where • Tower Theatre.
When • Opens Friday, Dec. 6.
Rating • R for language.
Running time • 122 minutes.