Written & Directed by Alex Gibney
Produced by Frank Marshall, Matt Tolmach & Gibney
Released by Sony Pictures Classics
USA. 123 min. Rated R

“Exhaustive.” That’s the best description for Alex Gibney’s thorough 123-minute scrutiny of Lance Armstrong and his now tainted sports record. In particular, he zeroes in on Armstrong’s ill-fated 2009 Tour de France comeback, which raised old questions of whether performance-enhancing drugs led to his seven previous victories. Viewers will be caught up to speed on the fallen idol’s bio, career, and how an infusion of blood increases a biker’s stamina during an uphill slog.

In 2009, Gibney and his crew tagged alongside Armstrong under the assumption that his return to competitive racing would be the subject of this documentary. Alas, Armstrong finished third, though he was no. 1 for the first part of the race. In the background, the voices of critics became louder and the sworn affidavits piled up. By January 2013, Armstrong faced the blunt but gentle questioning of Oprah Winfrey. In his best ready-for-TV voice, he answered with a simple “yes,” that he had been doping for years. Armstrong also sits down for a showdown with Gibney, a former fan.

The director doesn’t really take a harder approach than Winfrey, though. The interaction’s somewhat more personal, with Gibney admitting that he felt betrayed by Armstrong’s charade, but the focus is not on his interaction over the years with the former sports superstar. Gibney takes a more journalistic overview of the angry young man from Texas’ rise, his diagnosis of testicular cancer, and onward to his too-good-to-be-true Tour de France wins from 1999 to 2005. (According to Gibney’s narration, the race is the most grueling sporting event in the world, lasting more than three weeks and covering 2200 miles—but the views of the countryside are spectacular.)

To the film’s detriment, Armstrong comes across as polished, knowing what to say, confess, deny, or deflect. He’s brother-in-arms with Donald A. Rumsfeld, the subject of Errol Morris’s grilling in The Unknown Know, which also premiered this fall. Not to compare a sporting scandal to the war in Iraq, but these two men only tell so much, each practiced in the art of spin. The two films fail to mine documentary gold, at least in term of revelations. If you want an emotional breakdown or even a sign of doubt or vulnerability, see John Boehner. Much of what Armstrong says, like equating death with losing, gives fodder for armchair psychologist, since he never succinctly answers the question that Gibney poses to the audience, “What was he thinking?”

Even if you’ve been only following the fallen idol’s travails periodically, many of the players, or their names, will be familiar, but if Gibney had approached the convoluted accusations and rebuttals more as a storyteller, focusing on the betrayal of trusts among co-conspirators, the film would have been more involving. Members of Armstrong’s team all had seen him doping, and they also injected themselves with EPO, which stimulates red blood cells and allows more oxygen to muscles. The most acrimonious section features two former friends recounting Armstrong’s bullying tactics and his enforcement of the code of silence. Remembering events from a decade ago, Betsy Andreu becomes emotional, reliving what happened years ago. However, former best bud–turned–accuser Floyd Landis has scant screen time. He’s described as being enraged by the $300 million raised by Armstrong’s anti-cancer Live Strong campaign. (In a Nike campaign, Armstrong’s cancer survivor status was raised higher than his athleticism.) Only when it gets personal does The Armstrong Lie pick up speed.