Bike Shorts on Fire

Lance Armstrong and director Alex Gibney.Photo: Elizabeth Kreutz/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

F.U., Lance Armstrong, and the bike you rode in on. Sorry, I had to get that off my chest. Now I can review Alex Gibney’s engrossing documentary, The Armstrong Lie, in a more objective manner. I should add that many people at the preview screening were muttering their own variations of “F.U., Lance Armstrong,” though it didn’t feel cathartic. There was too much free-floating creepiness. Gibney spent most of his time with his subject during the 2009 Tour de France “comeback,” when Armstrong was still lying his ass-face off. As an embarrassingly obvious liar, I am constantly fascinated by how others do it, and Gibney gives you many opportunities to study a master. The “tell,” I think, is that Armstrong’s face freezes and his eyes go dead when he says he has never doped. But then, his face often freezes and his eyes go dead in normal conversation. Which means he’s usually lying, which means—and I believe that Gibney intends to demonstrate this—that truth for Armstrong is relative and that what we call Lie-Land he calls home. And home is where he hangs his hat—but never his head.

Gibney puts himself at the center of the doc, which is unusual. In voice-over, he says he began shooting in 2009 and was more or less in bed with Lance. He was there to document Armstrong’s return to cycling after beating testicular cancer and the would-be amazin’ victory that ended badly for our protagonist, with Alberto Contador giving Lance a long “Eat my dust” look across his handlebars and showing him his receding derrière. Gibney would have mentioned the controversies, of course. He could hardly have left out the press conference in which Armstrong reams out Paul Kimmage for writing that “the cancer” had returned to cycling, meaning Armstrong. “You are not worth the chair you’re sitting on,” says Armstrong, looking Kimmage in the eye. And you can sympathize a little with his umbrage: Kimmage was hitting below the belt of a man who is presumably still tender down there—as well as justly proud of the hundreds of millions he has generated for sick children. The sympathy evaporates, though, when Gibney considers the hundreds of millions he generated for himself and a whole sleazy cabal that reached all the way to the upper administrative echelons of the sport—while simultaneously helping to ostracize cyclists he taught how to dope in the first place.

Anyway, Gibney put that 2009 footage aside until professional cycling was suddenly shocked, shocked by evidence of Armstrong’s doping and stripped him of his seven titles—whereupon Lance came semi-clean to Oprah, who has difficulty asking follow-up questions of people nearly as rich as she is. The Armstrong Lie jumps around in time. Now we’re in 2013, now 2009. Now we’re in the nineties, watching Lance’s rise from a fatherless Texas hothead to a smoothie who’d ride away with the big titles and then home to Sheryl Crow—while wise onlookers like David Walsh wrote that something smelled to heaven. The chronology is confusing at times, but the film is never not fascinating. I’m bound to admit that a skeletal, post-cancer Armstrong getting back on his bike and slowly, agonizingly into condition is more impressive than Rocky Balboa punching dead slabs of cow, and that if athletic prowess were measured simply by the will to subject oneself to anything, Armstrong is indeed a champion. Gibney also provides an education—if you want it—on blood oxygen levels and their adjustment via dope and transfusions. Lance’s doctor was named Ferrari, and if that wasn’t a clue to why he’d suddenly go so fast, I don’t know what is.

Back to that lying. Professional sports is now a mountain of asterisks—the honest ones, the ones who don’t dope, leave well below its peak, their names unknown to us—and Armstrong is its troll king. He can say, “I lied,” and still lie (the film strongly implies) about doping during the 2009 Tour. He can lie, I’m convinced, because he fundamentally believes that his lies elevated him to a different sphere than the rest of us mortals, and that he breathed the higher air. When he tells Gibney “I can sleep at night,” he’s not, for once, lying.

Something is rotten in Asgard, to which Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has returned with a vanquished but ever-sneering Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and where Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is throwing regular regal hissy fits. Perhaps Odin is troubled that his majestic realm is about to be overrun, not so much by aliens as by a second-rate Tolkien plot that revolves around an empowering dark matter (the Aether) that attaches itself to, of all people, Natalie Portman as top Earth scientist Jane Foster. The ­computer-enhanced villain is called Malekith—even the name is generic—and he wants to destroy the Nine Realms, which means he first has to suck the Aether out of Natalie—who is given to passing out, drifting into another dimension, and emitting crackles of energy. I drifted off into the Aether myself while various CG armies whacked away at one another, but Thor: The Dark World gets a lot more entertaining in the second hour, when the shape-shifting Loki is sprung from his cell (for complicated reasons) and immediately begins trading bitchy insults with his forthright, manly brother. Many credited and (I’m sure) uncredited screenwriters have come onboard to punch up the banter and add good, deflating gags, like Thor having to board the London tube (“Mind the gap”) in the middle of an epic battle. That’s the series’ comic signature, and it’s a good one: high-flown Asgard declarations followed by earthy put-downs. Sometimes the balance is off and the movie tilts into camp (Kat Dennings as Portman’s high-strung assistant is an irritant), but when all is said and disintegrated, it delivers. At these prices, it better.

You can be sure that in the Comic Con-claves of the Internet, angry young men are even now debating the thorny issue of Thor’s kingship and why he doesn’t want it, and whether various minor Marvel characters have been given their due onscreen (obviously not). I wish them well. The rest of us can enjoy the ripe décor and luxuriant alienness of actors like Idris Elba and his great, horned helmet. Hiddleston stole the first Thor picture, but this time Hemsworth holds his own. I’ve been guilty of underrating him; he no longer seems like an overdressed lifeguard but an actor at one with his mythic accoutrements and worthy of his hammer. His voice is a thing of beauty—basso profundo with a rasp that adds an echo effect. He easily overpowers Hopkins, whose perorations are flat and cadences overfamiliar. Modern superheroes have an ironic, self-deprecating side, whereas Hemsworth is a true Marvel.

The Armstrong Lie
Directed by Alex Gibney.
Sony Pictures Classics. R.

Thor: The Dark World
Directed by Alan Taylor.
Disney Studios. PG-13.


Bike Shorts on Fire