In 2010, the prolific, Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney finished work on a film he planned to call The Road Back. The subject was cyclist Lance Armstrong’s 2009 return to the Tour de France. Earlier this year, Armstrong publically admitted what had long been asserted in the media: That he, like all of his teammates and almost all of his competitors, had indeed employed performance-enhancing drugs in all of his Tour de France wins, and that his defiant and indignant protestations to the contrary were spectacular lies.
Armstrong, who had won hearts around the world with the story of his comeback from testicular cancer in the mid-‘90s, eventually admitted to doping and lying about it in a long 2013 TV interview with Oprah Winfrey, immediately after which he allowed himself to interviewed again, by Gibney. The resulting film, opening here in the Valley today, obviously needed a new title, so Gibney borrowed a headline that had appeared in the French sports journal L’Equipe: Le Mensonge Armstrong—The Armstrong Lie.
Along with a detailed—possibly over-detailed—account of Armstrong’s career and some beautifully-shot, exciting cycling footage, Gibney’s film gives you a pretty big dose of the guy himself, as a talking head against a black background. Left, at last, with no plausible deniability, this handsome, superficially unassuming fellow speaks with no evident shame about what he did, and admits that he didn’t particularly lose any sleep over it.
I’m not a cycling fan, but to the slight extent that I paid any attention to it I suppose I, like many people, thought it was cool and inspirational that a cancer survivor had come back to unprecedented repeat triumphs in his grueling sport, not to mention starting a foundation in 1997 for cancer survivors. When it came out that this had been made possible only through an elaborate, scientifically sophisticated system of doping, and that Armstrong’s steely-eyed assurances of his innocence were loads of the most unmitigated bullshit imaginable, I, like many people, felt contempt. It would have been amused contempt—after all, we’re just talking about cycling, not something important like baseball—had it not been for the way Armstrong had piously set himself up as a role model for other people struggling with cancer, including children.
I wouldn’t have thought anything could have made me feel sorry for Lance Armstrong. But The Armstrong Lie did, because…this dude doesn’t understand what winning means. You sit there listening to this guy, with his near-peerless physical prowess and his psychological determination to win, and you think, there’s a wire in his head that’s not hooked up somewhere. He thinks—or, at any rate, he thought at the time—that winning is being declared the winner, and controlling the narrative that other people see. He admits as much to Oprah, calling his career a “mythic, perfect story, and it wasn’t true.”
Because this idea of winning isn’t remotely limited to Armstrong in the world of sports, and isn’t limited to the world of sports, either, but shows up far more dangerously and tragically in business, politics, religion and international relations, The Armstrong Lie isn’t a trivial film. I guess I’d have to say it’s the best sports documentary I’ve seen in years, at least since Kevin Rafferty’s delightful Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 back in 2008. But unlike Rafferty’s film, The Armstrong Lie, though compelling, isn’t that much fun. It seems a bit overlong, but that may just be because it’s disheartening, maybe even a little disturbing, to spend time in this creep’s company.
Maybe it’s presumptuous of me—a non-athlete and a fairly un-athletic person, with little overt competitiveness in my nature—to suggest that I understand winning more than Armstrong does. I’m sure I could never know the high that finishing first gives a person like that. To him, my suggestion that finishing first and winning aren’t always the same thing would probably seem like a comforting platitude from a physical mediocrity.
But I can’t help but wonder if the real problem is that Armstrong didn’t see, or didn’t pay enough attention to, the right sports movies, like The Bad News Bears or the original Rocky. I’d even prescribe for him a screening of the 2000 competitive-cheerleader movie Bring It On, in which the heroine learns that her cheer squad has been winning championships with routines purloined from an inner-city school. When her squad takes second, honestly for the first time, the movie closes with this wonderful exchange:
Boyfriend: So, second place. How’s it feel?
Heroine: Feels like first.