It is an unexpected honor to be the first reviewer of The Armstrong Lie.
Yesterday, I went to the London Film Festival and saw The Armstrong Lie directed by Alex Gibney. When it comes to documentaries, a world- renowned film festival is the perfect venue. There's nothing quite like a roomful of film critics, cycling writers and enthusiasts being given the opportunity to ask questions directly to a film director who had unprecedented access to his subject.
Alex Gibney is firmly established among the very elite of documentary filmmakers. He is responsible for Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (2012), Enron: The Smartest Guys In the Room (2005) and Catching Hell (2011) for ESPN's 30 for 30 series which are among some of my favorites of the genre. He also won an Academy Award for Taxi to the Dark Side (2007). Having already investigated scapegoating and bullying via a frightening episode in baseball's history when a fan interfered with a foul ball during Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series at Wrigley Field, he was well prepared to deal with Lance Armstrong from deification, to dirty politics and the long purgatory faced by some of sport's fallen heroes.
The Armstrong Lie, Mr. Gibney told us, was five years in the making. Lance Armstrong's return to competitive cycling in 2009 culminating with his first Tour de France in four years - after winning seven between 1999 and 2005 - was the original theme. The storyline begged for a Hollywood ending and it was hard not to root for it.
Instead, we saw what needed to be done to rescue Alex Gibney's project once Lance Armstrong lost the power to intimidate whistle-blowers and trample journalists. His return from retirement suddenly looked more like that of Roger Clemens than Michael Jordan. This makes The Armstrong Lie a somewhat bipolar movie stretched between the myth we embraced and Lance Armstrong's unblinking manufacturing of the truth. It is also a vivid summary of the conflicting interests within cycling from the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) which appears to have more in common with the financial sector than clean sport, to its ongoing disputes with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA).
What The Armstrong Lie does exceedingly well is show the 'Armstrong Cover-up'. To anyone who has read about systematic doping within cycling, it is about much more than a two-faced one-time ambassador-at- large of the sport. Johan Bruyneel - a former Director of the US Postal Service team and until recently, of the RadioShack team - does not stand to gain from the added exposure this film gives him when for example he is shown attempting to influence a key race result. There is nothing in the Armstrong Lie that will be new to anyone who has followed the sport with passion. Still it remains an important film and I am thankful it was completed. One day, we may come to view it as an essential document of one of cycling's darkest eras.
It is also enlightening to contrast Lance Armstrong's interview by Oprah Winfrey with new material to decide for ourselves on the depth of duplicity involved, the predicament faced by anyone whose talent happens to be riding a bike for 3 weeks over total distances exceeding 3,000 kilometers, and whether it is an easy decision to fight an entire peer group and lose one's income.
The Armstrong Lie emphatically answers 'Why?' when it comes to Lance Armstrong. How someone who almost died from cancer could renew with a dangerous high-stakes game of chemicals remains a mystery. Oprah Winfrey did not directly ask Lance Armstrong that question. Neither does Alex Gibney. Why a number of exceptional athletes appear unconcerned with their own mortality is left for us to ponder on. The speculation that doping could have caused Lance Armstrong's cancer in the first place is not discussed. The Armstrong Lie follows the money. Lots of it.
A member of the audience asked Alex Gibney if Lance Armstrong had seen the movie and if so, what he thought of it. We were told that he does not like the title.
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