The prolific documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney has made several strong films about the abuse of power: in the Catholic Church (Mea Maxa Culpa: Silence in the House of God), in corporate America (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) and in the U.S. government’s secret torture policies (Taxi to the Dark Side). Yet he has a hard time cracking the tough nut known as Lance Armstrong in his new film, The Armstrong Lie. The problem seems to be that Gibney is not just an investigator, but a disillusioned fan.
As everyone knows by now, the cyclist and inspirational cancer fundraiser Lance Armstrong would never win a race called the Tour de Truth. The 2012 investigation that stripped Armstrong of his records and banned him from the sport was merely a confirmation of accusations that had dogged him for more than a decade. As his onetime teammate, Floyd Landis (a fellow Tour de France winner) said in a Nightline interview that is part of the film: “At some point, people have to tell their kids that Santa Claus isn’t real.”
Yet Gibney, talented investigator that he is, bought the Armstrong superhero myth, resulting in an overly personal and unfocused film that exploits Armstrong’s celebrity without revealing much that is new. Back in 2009, Gibney had started to make a favourable documentary about Armstrong’s comeback with the cyclist’s full participation, chronicling his Tour de France return after a four-year retirement. Gibney still hadn’t finished the film when Armstrong was banned from the sport and his titles stripped from him, by which time the filmmaker had gone from “admiring fan to angry dupe.”
The film begins just three hours after Armstrong’s famous sit-down with Oprah Winfrey. Gibney interviews Armstrong, attempting to renew their previous relationship on new terms. Armstrong is tense – there’s the occasional muscle twitch around the mouth – but forthright about his use of EPO, testosterone, human growth hormone and blood transfusions to improve his performance. He’s disinclined to offer a display of contrition, which may be disappointing to the camera, but understandable for a man known for self-discipline. If he were a better liar, he could have worked up a tear.
The rest of the film is engaging enough, if not revelatory. There’s extensive use of Gibney’s previous footage from the 2009 Tour de France, as well as talking heads interviews and archival footage. The story follows what might be called the American Dream on Steroids: Lance’s poor fatherless youth, his early promise as a cocky teenager, and the devastating setback at 25 with cancer in his testicle, lungs and brain. Three years later, he won the first of a record seven back-to-back Tour de France races.
Simultaneously, we see the emergence of a shadow narrative of secretive drug use, fraud, and campaigns of intimidation against critics and journalists, as well as compromising the UCI, the international organization that oversees professional cycling. The nice man cuddling children on the cancer ward was also, apparently, capable of being vindictive to anyone who didn’t play by his rules. We meet several people from the Armstrong circle, many of whom were subsequently vilified when they testified against him: They include former teammates George Hincapie and Frankie Andreu, who along with his wife, Betsy, who overheard Armstrong tell his cancer doctors back in 1996 that he had used performance-enhancing drugs. Journalists David Walsh and Dan Coyle, authors of separate exposés of Armstrong and his circle, add to the pile-on about Armstrong’s mean and deceiving ways.
A good chunk of the film is given to Michele Ferrari, an unctuous Italian sports doctor, who experimented with Armstrong and other cyclists in stimulating red blood cell production, which lends the story a vampiric ickiness.
Ultimately, Gibney’s expressions of disillusionment (“He lied – straight to my face!”) sound disingenuous. It’s not something to take personally and Armstrong’s lack of contrition has a logic: He won against riders who were using the same drugs that he was, so it’s difficult to argue he had an unfair advantage. Armstrong’s tendency to play the cancer card – insisting he could never betray those sick children – is, no doubt, shameful, but if he let down those who insisted in believing in him beyond the bounds of credibility, the fault lies on both sides.