' ' Cinema Romantico: The Armstrong Lie

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Armstrong Lie

If we took all the dialogue from “The Armstrong Lie”, typed it up in a Word document and then performed a comprehensive search for the most-repeated phrase, it would have to be, hands down, “At the time”, a phrase spoken exclusively by its subject, seven-time Tour de France champion, cancer survivor and notorious liar and cheat Lance Armstrong. The story is beyond well-documented. For more than a decade, Armstrong vigorously denied all accusations that he utilized illegal means to win the most prestigious of all bike races more than anyone in history, until he finally reversed course in 2013 and confessed. “At the time,” he says, “it didn’t feel wrong.” “At the time,” he recounts, “I didn’t lose sleep over it.” “I know that now,” he advises relating to some spectacular fib. “I didn’t at the time.” In other words, he was so deep down the rabbit hole of lies, he could not – at the time – tell fact from fiction in his own mind. Now, he does. But does he?

At the time, however, is a phrase that could also be applied to director Alex Gibney’s overall project. He began the documentary in 2009 to chronicle Armstrong’s attempts to come back after a four-year layoff and win his eighth Tour de France. This was a point when Armstrong was often accused of wrongdoing but before he had admitted to it, and in advance of both the Federal and US Anti-Doping Agency Investigations in the ensuing years that led to his downfall. Gibney openly roots for an Armstrong win, as much in the capacity of a fan as a filmmaker, seeking the perfect capstone to his movie. Eventually, after Armstrong’s interview with Oprah in which he confessed (mostly) to his maelstrom of falsities, Gibney returned to the film, re-crafting it from the viewpoint of someone who had been duped.

In that way, Gibney, heard in voiceover throughout, questioning himself almost as much as his subject, comes to represent the general public and the way it (we?) bought into the lie. Gibney lays out the substantial amount of evidence against Armstrong, though ultimately the intent is not so much to prove Armstrong’s guilt as to portray him as dishonest. Again and again, Gibney and his editors cut from Armstrong in the past toeing the company line about how he has never once tested positive to Armstrong in the present discussing how he doped and got away with it. The Armstrong Lie was not a one-time deal, the film is saying, but perpetual……fiercely perpetual. He browbeat reporters, slandered teammates, shunned friends, leaving virtually no line uncrossed in ensuring his lie was furthered. He went so far as to falsely call his former masseuse Emma O’Reilly an “alcoholic” and a “prostitute” when she alleged he lied. He has since apologized but, of course, we are left to assume that “at the time” it seemed completely logical in his own mind to grossly slander an innocent woman.

His contrition is also undercut by the typical athlete copout, the same refrain you hear from petulant pre-schoolers, the one that goes “Everybody was doing it!” Well, to be fair, everybody was doing it. Sort of. Armstrong and his teammates were not doing it – at least, not at first, not in the early 90’s. And because they weren’t doing it, they weren’t winning, and in order to begin winning, they had to do it and they did. Go EPO or Go Home. Indeed, Gibney takes care in portraying the sport as one that breeds cheating on account of heads conveniently looking the other way and its necessity The nomenclature of the sport, as with so many sports, is often revolting, such as the Michele Ferrari, a doctor infamous for his ties to cheating who becomes Armstrong’s foremost ally. He refers unironically to Armstrong’s “engine”, how powerful it was and what was needed to increase that power even more, reducing the human cyclist to race car terminology, a commodity.

The gravest irony, of course, and the one that can so easily get lost, is that Armstrong is a cancer survivor. It’s incredible and commendable, and yet certain evidence points toward Armstrong’s doping being the actual cause of the cancer he defeated. Simultaneously, “The Armstrong Lie” makes clear that his Livestrong campaign was a roaring success in earning money for victims of cancer and cancer research. One shot finds Armstrong reclining in a private plane in a Panama hat perusing the “Marketplace” section of a newspaper. His tee shirt, though? It’s for Livestrong. It’s like a cinematic portrait of The Good Thief.

Which is why it’s not a stretch to believe the public might have forgiven Armstrong if he hadn’t been such a bully. The majority of the public and the media, Gibney seems to be saying, wanted to embrace Armstrong, which is why it let itself be strung along. It’s why Gibney intended to chronicle the 2009 comeback and why he found himself so swept up in rooting for his subject to win. The story is irresistible. It was so irresistible that Armstrong did everything in his power to maintain its fiction as reality. He may have acknowledged the truth but his ruthless tactics, willful defamation of those he once called friends and even his defiance today seem to leave him beyond forgiveness.

We like our heroes flawed. We don’t like our heroes to be assholes.


Alex Withrow said...

Great review here, my friend. The dichotomy of this whole ordeal is just fascinating. Armstrong will go down as one of history's great compulsive liars. And I don't mean for that to sound hyperbolic. Because really, this guy lied is bloody ass off.

And the kicker to your review is one of the best I've read in a long, long time. So spot on.

Nick Prigge said...

Thanks, man. I didn't even know how I was closing this review and it turned out to be one of those cases where it comes into focus as you're writing the review and writes itself.

Derek Armstrong said...

I usually don't read reviews of movies I haven't seen, but I decided to read this because this subject interests me so much. At the risk of tooting my own horn, I hated Armstrong as long ago as 2005, when you could find stories (if you were inclined to look for them) about the way Armstrong treated people and how he would bury them deep at the slightest act of what he viewed to be disobedience. I was calling this guy an asshole back in the days when people would give me funny looks if I said a single negative thing about him.

Sorry, I guess all I really did want to do was toot my own horn there. :-) But since I can't JUST do that, I will tell you what you already know I think: that you're a great writer and your work is always this solid. Hey, are YOU taking performance-enhancing drugs?

Nick Prigge said...

Damn, Vance. Thank you. One of the nicest compliments I've ever received, seeing as how it comes from someone whose own writing and disposition I admire. Cheers!