America's relationship with celebrity is in and of itself worthy of a documentary. It is a place where fame is placed on such high a pedestal because it represents the lofty ideal of success that many strive to achieve – and if it can't be achieved, well, then, there's always the option to live vicariously through the achievements of others. But getting back to that idea of America and it's relationship with celebrity – which, more often than not has a direct correlation with the overwhelming skepticism (some might say cynicism) of the American media – one has to wonder whether we elevate these celebrities and athletes to such heights, just to make their inevitable plummet that much more severe. And when it comes to someone like seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong, and his recent admission of using performance-enhancing drugs to achieve those titles, the question then becomes one asking what is worse: The lies and cheating, or the fact that it is so commonplace and pervasive that, as a society, we seemed to have expected it?
When it comes to Academy Award-winning director Alex Gibney's 'The Armstrong Lie,' the question of that lengthy, disruptive, and often pernicious deception takes on a larger, more ambiguous question of its own, as the subject of the film speaks candidly (or seems to) about his own interpretation of the level of wrongdoing at the heart of a sport many now see as irrevocably corrupt. Gibney's film began in 2009 when he was appointed to document Lance Armstrong's comeback to cycling, in which the embattled cyclist would compete again in the world's most recognizable race and seemingly drudge up accusations of doping of his own accord. Naturally, when the scandal blew up, and Armstrong was effectively stripped of his racing titles and banned from the sport for life, Gibney's film was put on hold. But from the destruction and turmoil caused by the accusations, the judgment, and, later, Armstrong's own admission of guilt, came a much more fascinating exposé on an incredibly successful professional life that was lived, for the large part, as a complete lie.
The film begins with Lance Armstrong sitting down to tape The Apology Heard 'Round the World with Oprah Winfrey, who is at her disciplinarian best. For those who have seen it, that interview would go on for three perfunctory hours, in which Oprah would ask the questions everyone already knew the answers to (ostensibly to push her brand further from Armstrong's), and Armstrong would answer them with a chilling matter-of-factness that said more about the level of his deception than any longwinded account – personal or otherwise – could possibly hope to achieve. From there, 'The Armstrong Lie' jumps back to 2009, to the film it was initially intended to be, exploring how Lance's comeback was ultimately undone as a result of the anger felt by fellow disgraced cyclist and former Armstrong teammate Floyd Landis, when he was denied a spot on Lance's new team.
Landis' issue with Armstrong and his team is in some way an inverse of the moral relativism Armstrong and other cyclists (many of whom are interviewed in the film) used to justify their use of performance-enhancing drugs – which was: everyone else is doing it, so in order to stay competitive, doping became the standard, not a deviation from the norm. In Landis' eyes, if he (and everyone else) was to be punished for doping, then so too should Armstrong. And with that came the beginning of the end for what was one of the most prolonged acts of fiction from a professional athlete in recent memory.
Despite its title, 'The Armstrong Lie' isn't entirely focused on the recent fallout from its subject's confession. Gibney does his due diligence and attempts to connect the dots in Armstrong's life and examples of his competitive (some might say sociopathic) personality that would lead to an individual rationalizing his actions in the way that Armstrong does. The film pieces together what was formerly seen as The Ultimate Inspirational Sports Story of a man who survived cancer and went on to win the Tour de France an astounding seven times. The disheartening conclusion the world has unfortunately come to is that what once seemed like a miracle – one that helped launch the Livestrong network, and an incredibly successful cancer charity, among other things – was as manufactured and deceptively empty as your average Michael Bay film.
For all its captivating subject matter, 'The Armstrong Lie' occasionally suffers from Gibney's decision to insert himself into the proceedings, often asking incredulously, "How could Armstrong deceive me?" It often feels like a superfluous question, as the point of the documentary seems to be that Armstrong deceived everyone. Thankfully, Gibney knows his subject, and has been granted exceptional access to him, in order to construct what seems to be the final leg on Armstrong's Tour de Apology.
What's ultimately mesmerizing, though, is the disingenuous, almost indignant manner in which Armstrong conducts himself throughout not only his career before he was banned from the sport, but during what was supposed to be a mea culpa that would, if nothing else, make him appear repentant for perpetuating a lie for so long, and hurting so many people along the way. In nearly every moment he speaks, Armstrong comes across determined to explain why he did what he did to win, and why his actions are indicative of a culture of cheating in a sport seemingly overrun with athletic corruption. The deceptive impenitence layered within an apology is indicative of the indefatigable competitiveness in Armstrong, and the culture of "winning at any cost" that perpetuates such a caustic drive.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Armstrong Lie' comes from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment as a single 50GB Blu-ray + digital Ultraviolet download in the standard keepcase. There are several previews ahead of the film, but they can be skipped to jump to the top menu. From there, you can select a wide array of subtitles for the film, in addition to the supplemental features.
'The Armstrong Lie' comes with a 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer that gives even the grainy footage from decades earlier a boost in quality. Although the image surrounding the most interesting aspects – i.e., the interviews -- are typically a little static and sometimes come off as somewhat sterile, the image itself is pristine: very clear and detailed, with crisp edges and nice textures. Colors are quite robust throughout the film as well, as the jerseys – especially the coveted yellow of the Tour de France – all stand out and appear quite vibrant, without looking oversaturated. Contrast is also quite high, as the black backgrounds on some of Armstrong's interviews look very good, the blacks are full bodied with no evidence of banding or poor shadow delineation; there is just a solid background that makes the subject look strikingly present.
For the most part, this is a straightforward transfer that really only needs to represent its subjects in a believable way, and although it does come across as too sterilized from time to time, the image itself is technically superb.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is also quite nice. The mix allows the most integral aspect of the film – the interviews – to come through without a hitch. The dialogue is always crisp, clear, and well defined, even when a scene has been recorded in the commotion of a race, or a press conference. The mix pushes most of the sound through the front channels, using the center channel for the majority of the basic dialogue, but there are times during races where it will extend to the front right or left channels. There is even some surprising attention given to the rear channels on some occasions, which helps to produce a slight immersive aspect to the film. Mostly this is done through the musical score, which is around to give some emotional weight to the proceedings, but the effect, though obvious, is actually a benefit to the film.
There's not a lot of atmospheric or LFE effects here, as the genre of film simply doesn't call for it. Still, despite a dearth of extras in terms of the audio, 'The Armstrong Lie' still manages to deliver the kind of high-quality sound that would be expected from such a recent production. It's not going to blow anyone's socks off, but it gets the job done.
'The Armstrong Lie' may suffer in the eyes of some for its subject matter having been so widely covered by a number of outlets well before the release of the film. As the filmmakers have said, though, the aspect that this documentary covers is the smaller details, and how this longstanding lie was able to go on for so long, despite so many people being fully aware of the truth. It's an examination of a truth many simply did not want to believe, as well as an investigation (superficial as it may be) about how a superstar was reduced to persona non grata in the blink of an eye. With good picture and sound, and some interesting extras, this one is definitely recommended.