Darragh John McCabe takes another look at Alex Gibney’s story of power.
Alex Gibney is one of the foremost contemporary documentary filmmakers, the natural heir to Errol Morris, and he believed Lance Armstrong. Did you? Or, like most of us, did you have your doubts, but those little yellow armbands made you hold your tongue?
And now, a film called The Armstrong Lie. Well, it can’t be denied that conning is in. Whether or not American Hustle or The Wolf of Wall Street get a few Oscars between them, box office figures have already let us know that the rogue trader’s stock is once again on the rise. Gibney’s film might help serve as a check; he shows us Armstrong’s unrepentant sociopathy at work both before and after he’s found out. Yet this is as captivating a character study as Martin Scorcese’s version of Jordan Belfort. Not because of any great complexity – if there’s one thing this film is inevitably missing, it’s a character arc, because Armstrong seems to be a less complex individual than some of the single-celled organisms I know. His single motivation is the pursuit of power for its own sake, with money merely a handy by-product.
The Armstrong Lie was going to be called The Road Home. Alex Gibney started filming Lance Armstrong during his bid for the yellow jersey in the 2009 Tour de France – his ‘comeback’ tour. Armstrong was nearly 40 and already had seven controversial wins behind him. Many were puzzled by his decision to return to cycling. Then, in 2012, it finally broke that Armstrong, along with just about all of his teammates and rivals, had been doping consistently throughout almost all his major competition wins. First a star in the sports firmament came crashing down, then the sky truly fell and professional cycling was discredited.
Gibney spends a good deal of the film showing us something like the film he would’ve made if Armstrong had never been caught, with the addition of some soul-searching narration. We see him train, and race, all the while lying to Gibney and the camera. Talking heads come in and out in and out, much like in Gibney’s previous films. The subjects are obviously well-chosen; no-one abuses hindsight, everyone is honest about how taken in they were, or, in the case of his former teammates, the degree to which they colluded. The best, most articulate interviewees, like Betsy Andreu and David Walsh, tend to be the individuals whom Armstrong has harmed the most.
Armstrong’s own interviews are extremely revealing in general, but in terms of the particulars, there’s nothing there. He obviously needs to win every argument as well as every Tour de France, so frank debates are non-starters. He gives exhaustive accounts of the concrete operations involved in his schemes, as far as he feels comfortable in talking about them and no further. Whenever he admits he’s done something bad, he uses the language of the recovering addict and talks around it. Passive verbs creep into his sentences and fester there, and his past self is spoken of like a crazy uncle or a shedded skin.
The Armstrong Lie, as the talking heads often point out, is a story of power before it’s a story of doping. Professional cycling has since been so discredited that that is no longer worth talking about. It’s Armstrong’s oddly amiable sociopathy that Gibney is fascinated with; that and the willingness with which companies like Nike and Radioshack were willing to take advantage of our need for big, redemptive stories – for myths – to make millions. The most disturbing scene is where a livid Armstrong is surprise tested by two German cycling officials, who are mortified by his display of temper. All this while his young children are in the room – just two more of the many, many people he disappointed.
The Armstrong Lie is in cinemas now