ESPN’s ‘Lance’ doc reframes a roller-coaster life

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“Lance” (2020)

Directed by Marina Zenovich

Lance Armstrong’s life has had more twists and turns and ups and downs than the route the Tour de France takes through the French Alps. At 7:00 on May 31, ESPN will air as part of its “30 for 30” series a new two-part, 200-minute special, “Lance,” that will examine Armstrong’s life as comprehensively as we’ve ever seen it covered. “Lance” covers Armstrong’s life from the time he gained notoriety as a teenaged triathlete through his cycling career, cancer survival, and, of course, the doping scandal that put an asterisk after every one of his many accomplishments. Can ESPN—who broke the internet with its 10-part Michael Jordan miniseries, “The Last Dance”—make lightning strike twice with a documentary about another sport’s most famous athlete?

“Lance” features extensive interviews with the subject himself. Armstrong is such a magnetic and interesting interviewee, though, that I wouldn’t have been mad if they had used him even more. Whether we can believe everything the notorious liar says is a matter of debate, but he was very forthcoming throughout his interviews. At this point, with his biggest lie exposed, Armstrong seems not to care what people think of him. It doesn’t make him a likable guy, but I think it makes him a great interview subject.

Lance Armstrong's '30 for 30' documentary: what to know about the ...

As a movie guy, of course I question why “Lance” and some of ESPN’s other “30 for 30” movies couldn’t have been edited as movies and released in theaters. “O.J.: Made in America” won an Oscar, you may remember, which makes this a valid question. Anyway, “Part 1” of “Lance” covers the 20th century, right up until his 1999 Tour de France win after recovering from testicular cancer. In “Part 2,” we see Lance turn into a worldwide sensation, appearing on talk shows and founding Livestrong. Throughout the success, though, Armstrong hid his doping secret. But hubris is Armstrong’s tragic flaw, and like a Scooby-Doo bad guy, he might have gotten away with it if it weren’t for some meddling cycling insiders that exposed the truth.

Armstrong’s Livestrong legacy makes him something of an antihero, though. Unlike O.J. Simpson in “Made in America,” Armstrong can’t be seen so easily as an unequivocal villain. The good his foundation has done is measurable, and the relationships he had with cancer patients was real (even if it was rooted in a lie). It makes “Lance” a gold mine of gray areas. That makes it a compelling documentary because it makes you rethink something you might have already decided. The passage of time hasn’t forgiven the wrongs Armstrong committed, but it might give audiences the chance to look at his life story in a new light.

7/10

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