Featuring: Lance Armstrong, Reed Albergotti, Betsy Andreu, Frankie Andreu, Michele Ferrari
Director: Alex Gibney
Writer/narrator: Alex Gibney
Movie website: sonyclassics.com/thearmstronglie/
2013-14 Lotterywest Perth Film Festival season dates:
Joondalup Pines: 11–16 March, 7.30pm
Verdict: Cycling fans and aficionados will relish this expansive treatment of the Armstrong scandal and its background, but casual viewers might struggle with the detail and somewhat chaotic presentation.
When Lance Armstrong announced a comeback to the Tour de France in 1989, four years after retirement, documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney covered the bid. Armstrong’s purpose was to convince the world that he raced clean and affirm his legendary status. Submitting to stringent drug testing throughout the race, he appeared to have achieved his objective, finishing a laudable third. However, with Armstrong’s former team-mates confessing to doping and providing compelling details about his involvement during the seven consecutive years he had won the event, the documentary was shelved. Following Armstrong’s eventual public admission of guilt on Oprah in 2013, Gibney revived the project, and The Armstrong Lie is the result.
It’s a strange creature, inevitably damning of Armstrong, not only for his cheating and lies but also his brutal exercise of power within and without the cycling world, yet retaining unsettling echoes from the early incarnation of the film, which appears to have been shaping as a pro-Armstrong puff-piece. For example, Gibney, who narrates throughout, sounds stirred with admiration when extolling Armstrong’s grit and determination in tackling a notoriously gruelling ascent during the 1989 Tour. It’s a curious inclusion, given Armstrong’s subsequent filmed admissions that he was not racing clean in 1989, or during the previous Tours.
Armstrong rationalises his doping on the basis that all pro cyclists during his Tour years were doing it, and that it was not possible to be competitive at elite levels if racing clean. He then extends the argument to claim that he could not be said to be cheating if the term is defined as gaining an unfair advantage over competitors. Gibney does not take a position as narrator on these contentions, which is a bit of an eyebrow-raiser.
Granted, some of the content of the documentary makes a nonsense of Armstrong’s line of argument. His wealth and power gave him exclusive access to the notorious Dr Michele Ferrari, for example, the world’s foremost expert in enhancing cycling performance through legal and illegal means and in avoiding detection of banned substances. In thus fencing off Ferrari for his sole benefit, and travelling by private jet to minimise post-racing drug testing opportunities, he gained a formidable advantage over his less financial, less powerfully connected rivals. Hardly a level playing field, then.
Cycling fans and aficionados will relish the detailed treatment of the Armstrong scandal and its background, as well as some terrific Tour footage. The film covers a lot of biographical territory, including Armstrong’s battle with testicular cancer, his cancer-funding charity work, excerpts from the Oprah confession, and interviews with ex-cycling team-mates and spouses, the disgraced but seemingly unrepentant Dr Ferrari, and other notables from the pro cycling world.
Casual viewers might struggle to stay with it all from go to whoa. The presentation of material is a little chaotic, partly because of the expansive biographical territory covered, the chronological flitting back and forth, and the number of players in this sorry rise-and-fall drama, but perhaps also this is another artifact of Gibney’s forced change in tack following Armstrong’s doping confession.
That in itself is one of the most interesting aspects of the film; here we have myth-maker turning myth-breaker and not without some discomfort it seems, as a composite picture emerges of a larger than life figure whose qualities as a cycling champion enabled him to beat impossible odds (with a little help from his “friends”), while rendering him a Machiavellian sociopath out of the sporting arena, driven to crush anyone who crossed him.
The takeaway impression, though, is that Armstrong’s greatest crime is not his doping, compulsive lying, abuse of power or lack of remorse, but his betrayal of those who believed in his myth, the filmmaker included. Which begs the fascinating question as to how to apportion the blame between Armstrong the man and the culture that spawned the myth.
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