The Armstrong Lie
Growing up, I never had much of an interest in professional cycling, so was only partially aware of the ever-growing furore over one Lance Armstrong. I was dimly conscious that he was an immensely successful cyclist constantly accused of cheating, which from the sources that seemed to talk about him most (Euroskeptic tabloids usually) seemed to stem from sour grapes and annoyed French people, grumbling that an American was constantly winning “their” race.
I did not give any part of the story that much attention. When the truth and confessions did come later in my life, I was thus as surprised and intrigued as many other people, with the added benefit that I was looking at the controversy with relatively fresh eyes. Here is one of the great sporting stories of our time, a man who rose from near-death to become one of the great legends of competitive achievement, now tarnished forever. I read more into it than I previously had, and was astounded by the potential depth of the conspiracy, the steadfastness of some journalists who refused to be cowed in their pursuit of Armstrong, and the crazy amount of control the cyclist was able to exert over so many people.
Documentarian Alex Gibney (Mea Maxima Culpa, Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room, Taxi To The Dark Side) followed Armstrong on what was supposed to be his glorious point proving comeback to the Tour de France in 2009, where the Texan hoped to win the race one more time just to really show his detractors that he was still capable of doing so. A few years later, when the sordid reality had been laid bare with the help of Oprah Winfrey, Armstrong allowed Gibney to place him under the spotlight once more. The questions are obvious. Why did Armstrong do it? Why did he never cease denying it for as long as he could? And, most importantly, why were so many willing to believe the Armstrong lie?
Spoilers, such as there are for a documentary, follow after this point. My shorter, spoiler-free, review, is available on The Write Club.
Gibney sets about his task with professionalism and candour, with a nice blend of archive footage, modern day interviews and his own basic narration, which guides us well through the tangled web of the titular falsehood. He admits some crucial aspects freely, so as not to be accused of a slant in either direction. Yes, he was one of the many who bought into the fabrication that Armstrong was selling. Yes, more than once he felt himself sliding from the neutral position a man like him most have during the 2009 Tour, wanting Armstrong to succeed so he could fashion an uplifting sports story. Yes, he feels betrayed by the cyclist. Who wouldn’t, after having that much direct contact with the man, to be front and centre for the cavalcade of lies?
But, to my delight, The Armstrong Lie is not about condemnation. The whole world knows what Armstrong did and that it was wrong, and the moral outrage does not need to be rehashed in great detail. Gibney’s original project was (happily for him) uncompleted when the suspicions became concrete fact, and from the wreckage of the first plan Gibney has constructed this captivating and savagely uncompromising portrait of Armstrong. Gibney has his three crucial questions to answer and, with a mix of contemporary footage of Armstrong, his own work in 2009 and subsequent interviews, he goes about answering them in this well paced and well edited production. The experience is not framed directly around those three questions, but might as well have been, so important are they to the journey that Gibney wants to take us on.
The first question is answered by as complete a profile of Armstrong as you can get in an hour and a half. Here is a man from a poor background, who grew up battling for everything he got, who broke into the emerging cycling scene, who survived a brush with death in the form of an extensive cancer battle and who then grew into a person who could never accept losing, to the extent that an obsession with gaining success – by any means necessary – seems to have been almost pathological in him. If winning (and winning and winning) meant breaking the set rules repeatedly, so be it. If it meant destroying the lives and livelihoods of people trying to stop him, even they had once been friends and teammates, so be it. If it meant consorting with shady characters with dubious medical practises, and then publically defending those people, so be it. If it meant playing the victim, adding to the original lie with a sense of faux-outrage, so be it.
In the world of Lance Armstrong, as Gibney expertly makes clear, nothing is off limits when it comes to gaining success. If he wasn’t going to let cancer beat him, he wasn’t going to let rules do the same. From his first experience of the Tour de France and the doping scene, to his comeback in 2009, Armstrong is a man obsessed with using everything at his disposal to get ahead of the competition, comparing losing with death.
It’s eerily compared with the way that Armstrong describes cycling when he was young. The man talks about cycling down the road in his bike as a child as a freeing experience, that captures essences of independence and wild possibilities. Cycling then felt like a joy, an activity to be savoured and to be enjoyed for its own merits. Making a career out of it was almost done unintentionally by Armstrong, who just seems to have stumbled into something he was quite good at.
But whether it was the pain of his fractured home life or the grim fight with cancer, something pushed Armstrong over the edge when it came to his competitive nature. The difference between the pre-cancer attitude of Armstrong and the same after his successful treatment seems stark, at least until we realise that the modern day Armstrong is the man dictating both. Did his victory over cancer propel him to be this man who accepted nothing short of total victory, or is he just picking the most traumatic part of his life as an excuse? Gibney leaves us to form our own conclusion on that score, just as he does with the figure of Michele Ferrari, the doping specialist who assisted Armstrong throughout his Tour victories. It would be easy to frame the story as that of an eager young sportsman falling under the sway of a Machiavellian doctor looking for guinea pig, but it’s made clear that this is not what it was: Armstrong and Ferrari had a mutual admiration for their respective work, the kind of attitude that speaks volumes about the moral integrity – or lack of it – for both men.
So why lie about it all the way up to when the lies became impossible to maintain? This is when Gibney deals with the defences and excuses Armstrong and others have employed to try and deflect away from his falsehoods, or even justify them. Gibney allows Armstrong the time and space to tell his “true story” even if he is as slippery in the telling as a greased pig.
Armstrong’s insistence of a “greater good” to his lies does manage to permeate a bit – the children involved with his “Livestrong” charity are probably more worried about funding to fight their own cancers than Armstrong’s cheating – but one cannot help but think that the Livestrong project was an extension of Armstrong’s ambitions, something created after the fact. But there might be people, even children, alive today because of Armstrong’s misgained success. Does that make it OK? There are those who will argue it does. For me, I feel part of the fault lies with a human race who will not give freely to such charities unless there is a sporting icon attached to them. We shouldn’t have to rely on a proven liar and cheater to show us the way. Gibney’s section that focuses on these children seems designed to tug at the heartstrings, perhaps a carryover from the original project. But it’s still worth including. We should confront the uncomfortable realities of a story like this.
And then there is the common excuse of “Everyone does it”. I’ve always found this a little hard to swallow, no matter how much people like Armstrong serve it up. In the case of the Tour de France, the race had 189 official competitors the last time Armstrong “won” it in 2005. It seems extremely unlikely to me that all of them were using performance enhancing drugs. Therein lies the rub: if even just one of them was following the rules as they were written down, then Armstrong’s go to excuse hasn’t any legs. But he still has his justifications beyond that, treating himself and others who used such “aids” as a separate class to those who refused to. Everything always seems to come back to that obsession with winning. If you aren’t willing to use performance enhancers, in Armstrong’s world, you’re just another loser not worth considering. When Armstrong says something like “everyone was doing it” he means all of the serious competitors. Everyone else, the athletes who approach the contest with respect for the rules and a desire to test their own physical limits without help from chemicals, are like a different species.
So, why all the belief, why the defences, why the delusion of his adoring public (which, in a small way, even I was a part of)? Part of that comes from cyclist authorities and press wanting to maintain the popularity of the sport, to the extent that Gibney essentially accuses them of collaborating with Armstrong in certain cover-ups of his drug use, a serious charge that is in no way refuted to the required degree in the course of The Armstrong Lie. Cycling as a professional sport depended on Armstrong to a scary extent, especially in the United States. Its explosion in popularity in the last 15 years or so can be largely traced back to him after all, and there were probably many people in positions to blow the whistle who refrained, for fear that they may have ruined the sport they loved so much. For an excellent example of a journalist who was caught up in such a manner (and who was a contributor to this documentary), read this piece by Steve Madden.
Armstrong was tested again and again during his career, to the extent that footage of his exasperation with the examinations gains a greater power than if they were just once offs. They are an intrusive and intensely public practise – the person being tested can be called upon while they are at home spending time with their children, and must (emphasis on the “must”, no matter how long it takes) urinate into a cup while being watched by a tester. I think anyone, cheater or no, would get annoyed at such things. But the point is that for all of the repeated tests, it took years and years for the truth to finally be acknowledged. Something was rotten in the state of Denmark, or at least the UCI, which only acted against Armstrong when incontrovertible evidence was presented by a separate body, the USADA. There were almost certainly cover-ups perpetrated by very high ranking members of the sports governing body, who are probably hoping that the whole storm has passed them by.
Part of it comes from Armstrong’s (usually successful) litigation of those who pressed the issues, like journalists Paul Kimmage and David Walsh, two men whose subsequent vindication might not quite make up for the constant haranguing and intimidation they were subjected to from Armstrong and his supporters. They were certainly a bit callous in their own reporting – referring to Armstrong in one article as a “cancer” is a deliberately provocative and needlessly insulting statement – but this pales in comparison to Armstrong, who verbally attacked them in press conferences, repeatedly called them liars and then successfully sued them when they tried to publish books that contained the truth about his drug use. Walsh’s newspaper lost a million British pounds over one such lawsuit, and agreed upon an unstated sum in a countersuit last year. That it got so far, and that the accusations of these men were so brutally shut down by their peers and the law, is an astonishing testament to the influence of Armstrong, a man who could ruin people and companies with ease. One interviewee for The Armstrong Lie notes, “It’s not a story about doping, it’s a story about power”. Armstrong had that power, and used it to hound people out of the sport if it served his purposes.
Gibney takes the time to focus a lot on a former teammate, Frankie Andreu, and his wife, Betsy, who testified in court proceedings to the effect that Armstrong was taking performance enhancers, (as was Andreu). Armstrong denied it, lied in open court about it, and got away with it. The Andreu’s were shunned and cast out of the cycling world, receiving crazy-sounding messages of violent content from Armstrong’s inner circle. It is typical of the effect that Armstrong had on people, and to this day the man struggles to avoid talking about that specific affair.
Armstrong is portrayed as thinking he is a God among insects, and those insects were annoyances who had to be squashed if they were getting in his way. If it took outright bullying of teammates to keep them in line, or lying under oath in court proceedings (and winning), or enforcing pariah status on the ones who dared to tell the truth, Armstrong would do it, and happily it would seem, a man who was practically getting off on his own sense of control.
But most of it I think, the excusing I mean, comes from the sheer hypnotism of Armstrong himself. In the archive footage he simply seems so genuine in everything he says. The charming arrogance while winning the Tour de France again and again, the anger at journalists who continually push the doping issues, the annoyance at being continually surprise tested, the hurt as he discusses the issue on numerous talk shows. Here is a man so adept at lying, so good at playing on the emotions of the crowd, so competent at using an overly-sympathetic media to his advantage, that it must be a case of Armstrong himself believing his own lies, or at least the justifications for them that come later.
His attempted comeback in 2009 is a great example of a man manufacturing his own legacy, wanting to be seen as the kind of guy who never gives up, he refuses to lay down for the criticism of his lessers, a message that resonated with Gibney throughout that Tour. Armstrong still thinks his seven Tour victories are legitimate for example, and that his immense fortune was not undeserved. He isn’t believable just because he is a great liar. He was believable because he seems to believe his own lies, maybe because he was so used to telling them, over and over and over again.
If there are problems with The Armstrong Lie, it is just that one of the main hooks of the promotional materials – that Armstrong’s own contributions would tell the untold story of his cycling career – does not really pan out. The segments that feature Armstrong’s modern day interview is a lesson in avoiding the issue, poorly constructed apologies and weaselling out of the accusations thrown his way, always coming back to that same old mantra of seeking success without compromise. In a bizarre way, it rather reminded me of Sean Connery in Michael Bay’s The Rock: “Losers whine about their best, winners go home and fuck the prom queen”, the kind of blunt philosophy you can well imagine Armstrong endorsing. Aside from that, I suppose Gibney portrays nothing that is not already in the public record, but he is the first documentarian of note to make such a film about this subject. As you might expect from his accomplishments, he is imminently capable of putting it together in the right way.
A good comparison is with another documentary I saw recently, John Singleton’s Marion Jones: Press Pause. Part of the ESPN 30 For 30 series, it too followed a disgraced former athlete who consistently denied using performance enhancers only to confess that she, of course, had been all along (the difference between Jones and Armstrong being that she spent time in prison for it, after lying to federal officials about her drug use).
Singleton’s documentary is everything that Gibney’s could have been if it had taken all the wrong choices: overly-sympathetic to its focus, far too quick to offer excuses for her behaviour and mindlessly biased in its selection of interviewees, nearly all of which are there to back up the viewpoint that Jones is an unfairly maligned personality. It is a documentary where it is laughably claimed repeatedly that Jones would have won all of her success even without performance enhancers. You can imagine Armstrong watching it and wishing he had allowed Singleton into his inner circle instead of Gibney.
This kind of story is easily turned into the most inane kind of puff piece, and in the comparing and contrasting of Press Pause and The Armstrong Lie we really do get to see the sheer gulf in class between the two filmmakers, and all of the positives that Gibney brings to the task: lack of bias, aloofness from the subject and a willingness to refrain from dictating conclusions to the audience. With the kind of direction Singleton showed in Press Pause, we see the terrible alternative history that The Armstrong Lie could have been, an apologist piece of propaganda designed to excuse the worst kind of sporting dishonour. When Gibney talks frankly of his previous respect for Armstrong during the 2009 Tour, we can envision how The Armstrong Lie would have looked if it was completed quicker or if the truth had not come out when it did. It would have been an entertaining fiction, I’m sure, with Armstrong looking glorious even in defeat.
Depressingly, The Armstrong Lie does give me pause when it comes to other sports. In the vast ocean of journalism and reporting on football, my most beloved pastime, there are the inklings of what must be the unpalatable truth beneath the surface, that players and clubs are involved in such activities in the same manner that Armstrong was, with chemical enhancements and dodgy procedures to make players bigger, faster and stronger. For now, we get glimpses of it, through the actions of individuals, easily dismissed as not part of the whole. One day, I believe that football will face that scandal on a wide scale, when the truth slips out or when some whistleblower does the right thing. That will be a bad day for football, as we see the truth behind some of the impressively built facades. On that day, those of us who had no great appreciation for cycling may feel as many of its fans felt when Armstrong dropped the pretence, when heroes became villains. And football will not be the only sport, I’m sure. Part of me suspects there are coaches and players from GAA to cricket who will see the events depicted in The Armstrong Lie and squirm in a most uncomfortable manner.
The Armstrong Lie is a fine documentary. It’s edited very well, paced superbly, and you never feel its length (something Gibney can’t claim with his other sport-orientated piece, Catching Hell). It offers a frank and absorbing overview of its main subject, and explores the main issues surrounding it with aplomb. Perhaps it does not wow as well as it could have, lacking that outstanding revelation many expected, and I suspect that those who know much about the story before seeing it might find their attention drifting in parts. But speaking purely for myself, I found The Armstrong Lie to be entertaining and engaging, very much the equal of something like the previously reviewed Mitt, albeit without that films sense of really seeing beneath the surface.
In the end, Gibney comes up with no real judgements of his own – God knows Armstrong has been judged extensively by both the courts and public opinion, and the legal battles are ongoing – but leaves the audience to make their own conclusions on a man who seems to believe in his own fiction so strongly that he holds out hope that he will be considered a sporting hero again in the future. It is much more likely that his legacy will be defined by how every list of Tour de France winners or cycling statistics now chooses to display his tainted name, a damnatio memoriae for the modern age: Lance Armstrong.
(All images are copyright of Sony Pictures Classics).