DIR/WRI: Alex Gibney, Joel Coen • Pro: Alex Gibney, Frank Marshall, Matthew Tolmach • DOP: Ben Bloodwell • ED: Andy Grieve, Lindy Jankura, Tim Squyres • DES: Jess Gonchor • CAST: Lance Armstrong, Reed Albergotti, Betsy Andreu, Frankie Andreu
2013 was a landmark year for Lance Armstrong, who finally came (somewhat) clean about his use of performance enhancing drugs throughout his illustrious career in competitive cycling. The previous year, the USADA (America’s anti-doping agency) had stripped Armstrong of his seven Tour de France titles, and Armstrong’s response had been pretty par for the course from one of cycling’s best-known figures: a tweeted picture of him lounging beneath his seven framed jerseys. “Back in Austin and just layin’ around…” was the caption, and to many it marked the continued defiance of a sportsman who had battled the odds at every stage in his career. For others, it was the mark of a man who felt untouchable – who after years of increasing power, still could not see that the writing was well and truly on the wall.
One year after Armstrong’s famous ‘sorry, not sorry’ Oprah interview, Alex Gibney brings The Armstrong Lie to our screens with all the solemnity it deserves. The documentary started life with Gibney’s attempt to follow Armstrong’s triumphant comeback to the Tour de France in 2009 after a four-year absence: what followed instead was unprecedented access to a man at the peak of his power when it all began tumbling down. Initially, therefore, Gibney had difficulty finding people willing to talk – for all intents and purposes this award-winning documentary maker, who had won an Oscar for his cinematic take-downs of abuses of power, appeared to be filming a puff piece about a comeback-kid. It is impossible to discuss Armstrong without reference to his miraculous return to form having dealt with testicular cancer in 1996 – and it is this, along with his ensuing charity work, that has made him more than legend. Alex Gibney was thus presented with the possibility of a “feel-good story” far removed from his usual work: “Even if Lance had doped before,” he remarks, “– and remember: ‘no positive tests’! – if he could race clean at the age of 38 and beat the field, then that would be inspirational.” That film, the one where hard work and perseverance triumph, was in the bag, and all that remained were the final credits. Then Floyd Landis accused Armstrong of using performance enhancing drugs, and suddenly the silence was broken – people began appearing from everywhere with their own stories and accusations: transfusions on the team bus, motorcyclists carrying drugs, dumping needles, faking prescriptions…it went on and on, and was impossible to ignore. As Armstrong himself tells the camera, “I didn’t live a lot of lies, but I lived one big one.” And so Gibney’s movie became the story of this systematic deceit, and how it has come to define the career of Lance Armstrong.
However, it is Gibney’s obvious liking of Armstrong that makes this documentary so much more than just an exposé: the interviews with him are far more personal, and there are satisfying moments when the carefully-crafted celebrity persona slips. That’s not to say that he comes through unscathed – a raft of talking heads intersperse throughout, their stories highlighting the terrible truth of Armstrong’s vendettas and bullying tactics that made more than a few people’s lives hellish, and drove others right out of their careers. Amongst the many fascinating contributors, the film features: Frankie Andreu, a former teammate and loyal friend still torn and shaken about his own involvement; his wife Betsy, embittered by the grudge Armstrong has held against first her husband, and then herself; Emile Vrijman, the lawyer who’s report exonerated Armstrong in a 2005 investigation; and, a major coup, Michele Ferrari, Armstrong’s long-time physician who aided the illegal enhancement of his performance, and who has rarely spoken to press. For Irish interest, there is the indefatigable David Walsh, who relentlessly sought the truth despite years of vitriol spat not only from Armstrong, but from his fellow journalists. Compatriot investigator Paul Kimmage also kept the faith, and his 2009 press-conference stand-off with the cyclist over Kimmage’s naming him a cancer on the sport is a classic example of Armstrong’s bullying tactics when it came to those who questioned his power. The star of this story, though, is the story itself – from a lonely upbringing to his early triumphs over adversity, and on into the web of lies he spun, the real driving force is shown to be a quest for more and more power, and to win, win, win.
There are those who await this documentary with pitchforks and lighted torches, angry at the man who desecrated the sport that they adore with years of unchecked destruction, and yet there are also some who consider Armstrong to have been the scapegoat for an inherently corrupt competitive sport. Whichever way you look at it, there is no denying that his intense celebrity status culled from years of winning against the odds meant that for a long time he was the poster-boy for the cycling world. This power allowed Armstrong to revel in the arrogance and cruelty he showed to rivals and, as Gibney points out, directed the flow of this movie: “[It] was becoming a film about winning – at all costs: the very thing I most admired about Lance on the bike – his will to win – was the very thing that enabled him, off the bike, to bully the weak to protect his reputation and growing fortune.”
Armstrong’s doping hid itself in plain sight for years, with people at every stage ignoring the blatant signs of abuse – for to call him up on it, as the most powerful and significant player in the cycling world, would be to call the entire sport into question. What this documentary shows more than anything is that Armstrong was not merely abusing substances while cycling his way to the top: he was creating an unrelenting media machine of pure power. In the end it was this confidence in his untouchable position, and his own belief in the ‘big lie’ he had created, that hastened the downfall of cycling’s legendary albatross.
15A (See IFCO for details)
The Armstrong Lie is released on 31st January 2014