Alex Gibney thought it would be a nice change of pace.
Over the past decade, the New York-based filmmaker has made a name for himself with a series of piercing documentaries about the interplay between deceit and success. Among them were Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, a gripping chronicle of that energy company's sleight-of-hand rise and stunning collapse; Client 9, about New York Attorney-General Eliot Spitzer's crusade against Wall Street corruption and his penchant for prostitution; and We Steal Secrets, a warts-and-all profile of the founding and then faltering of Wikileaks.
So it would be kind of fun, he figured, to make an uplifting film about an athlete's comeback.
Too bad the athlete was Lance Armstrong.
But if he didn't get the story he'd anticipated, Gibney scored something much richer: The Armstrong Lie, which opens Friday in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, is a compelling behind-the-scenes study of a deception that lasted almost two decades. It will likely prove an irresistible hate-watch event for former fans – the ones with boxes of Livestrong memorabilia now banished to the basement – but also a briskly informative ride for casual observers.
The film got its start in 2008 after Armstrong, still dogged by doping allegations three years into retirement, wanted to prove he was clean when he won his seven Tour de France titles. The plan was that he would ride the Tour again, with Gibney's cameras capturing everything from the comprehensive drug testing to the ups and downs of the thrilling three-week race, while posting his blood values online every day so skeptics could judge for themselves. "If I win again," he explained to Gibney, "they can't say [I doped before.] They cannot."
Armstrong came in third, but by the time Gibney finished a rough edit of the film in late 2010, the chorus of doping accusations had grown to a roar. Gibney put the film aside to await a resolution. Then, last December, six weeks before he sat down with Oprah Winfrey for a much-hyped prime-time pummelling, Armstrong called him to confess and apologize. "Lance realized that his story was no longer believable," explained Gibney during an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival. "If he was going to manage his story in the future, he would have to find a different way forward than the promo film."
So would Gibney, who had been targeted during the filming by critics of Armstrong who were horrified the Oscar-winning filmmaker might be putting his imprimatur on a massive con. "I was actually part of a cover-up story," Gibney said. "So I had to reinvent what I thought that story meant, and to take a new reckoning of my role.
"I think in many ways, the critics were probably underestimating my role a little bit – that I'd suddenly become a commercial maker. But nevertheless I can see their perspective, because that's how it had always been with Lance: You were either on his side or off his side."
The film illuminates that us-and-them in literal detail, showing the hordes ringing the fence that was erected around Armstrong's team bus at each stop on the Tour. "Only the insiders get in, and everybody looks in at them, and they know they're the ones on the inside, and everybody else is on the outside," Gibney said. "I was on the inside, so it's perfectly natural that people would be pissed off."
But that may be where the film's easy divisions between black and white stop. Because, while Gibney does not excuse Armstrong of his numerous sins – among them, forcing his teammates to dope, and all but ruining the lives of one-time friends who refused to go along with his deceptions – he ruefully notes the ways in which doping, which was endemic, was enabled at the highest levels of the sport. Not only were the ruling bodies involved, so were the major sponsors that either knew or willfully ignored what was going on.
But The Armstrong Lie argues that everyone who believed the lie may be implicated in it. "It's like being in a relationship, and you think that other person loves you and they don't – they were just bullshitting you. Well, how enraged does that make you feel?
"Sometimes, the stories that are most appealing to us fans are the ones that are most tainted," he explained. Then, noting he was in Canada, he added, "Ben Johnson," and let it hang in the air.
At a TIFF press conference the following day, Gibney suggested The Armstrong Lie has implications that reach beyond sports. "In many ways this is a film about the ethic of 'win at all costs,' " he said.
"Sometimes we admire it in sports, and sometimes we admire it in business. And yet, when we face the ugly truth about the downside of that, we're surprised, we're appalled. But it's part of the same package. I think that – writ large – remains a question: How will we continue to look at this ethic of 'win at all costs'? Is that something we admire, or can we really imagine a world in which winning is not always the most important thing?"