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Filmmaker, disillusioned, slows Armstrong documentary's roll ★★ 1/2

Michael Phillips

Talking Pictures

10:36 AM EST, November 14, 2013

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A lying sack of sponsorship, world champion cyclist Lance Armstrong at his peak successfully beat back accusations from the "haters" (his word) in the press, and his rivals on the circuit, regarding his alleged use of performance enhancing drugs. On the way up the mountain of fame, and millions, the Texas native with the brash, reckless confidence was diagnosed with cancer in 1996. He underwent testicular and brain surgery and punishing chemotherapy. He warded off cancer, though, and in 1998 returned to racing until his 2005 retirement. In 2008 he ventured back to cycling and had in his sights the 2009 Tour de France.

Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney initially set out to make a movie called "The Road Back," an intimate look at Armstrong's maybe-triumphant comeback. How could he lose, with a subject like that? But then Armstrong, the subject of various investigations, finally caved under the weight of the "one big lie" (his phrase) he'd been living. He owned up to the doping, the doping he and so many other cycling competitors did weirdly little, for years, to fully conceal.

To mixed success, "The Armstrong Lie" allows Gibney generous time and space to explain what sort of movie he started out to make and what kind of confessional he ended up making. Gibney narrates and basically never shuts up about his own credulousness. Often he's heard on the soundtrack, aghast. "He had lied to me, straight to my face!" he says at one point. Yes, well, he lied to millions, pal.

Included in the archival footage, Armstrong's ad for Nike is especially souring today, using phrases such as "a doper" and "a fraud" in a mocking, dismissive way. Everyone was doping in cycling during the Armstrong era; as Gibney's film frames it, Armstrong and his team weren't trying to beat the system. They were simply trying to join it on the down-low.

"The Armstrong Lie" gets going, and gets pretty good, when Gibney is able to focus on the 2009 Tour de France itself, a race fraught with old rivalries and backstage dramas. It's the movie he set out to make in the beginning, after all. But getting there is tough going.

Gibney, I think, misjudged his own newsworthiness in putting this documentary together. Armstrong's a titanic subject for any filmmaker, recalling at least one recent president in his tetchy good-ol'-boy demeanor on camera. In the film's production notes Gibney characterizes his own journey "from admiring fan to angry dupe." I suspect many of the best documentaries, on any subject, start from neither of those polarities but somewhere in between.

mjphillips@tribune.com

"The Armstrong Lie" - 2 1/2 stars

MPAA rating: R (for language)

Running time: 2:03

Opens: Friday at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema and the CineArts6, Evanston