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Film Review: The Armstrong Lie

The Armstrong Lie (2013; Directed by Alex Gibney)

Lies are narratives. Narratives are lies. If those fortunate among us who have seen Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell learned anything from it, it’s that it’s very hard to separate the two, especially in the dimly-lit halls of human memory. But what about in the bright glare of the public eye? Is it easier to tell a purposely-shaped narrative from a lie when it’s told to millions of people, with millions of dollars riding on it?

This is one of the questions you might be asking at the conclusion of Alex Gibney’s The Armstrong Lie, a troubled, open-ended examination of the controversial career of Lance Armstrong, the 7-times Tour de France champion cyclist, cancer survivor and crusader, and inspirational media icon who was exposed as a drug cheat in 2012 and stripped of his titles. Gibney’s documentary began its production life on the road with Armstrong as he attempted a high-profile comeback at the 2009 Tour de France, four years after winning the most prestigious cycling competition in the world for the seventh consecutive time. Gibney, known for his complex and conflicted issues documentaries, seemed an odd choice to document a legacy-cementing victory lap for an apparent living inspirational poster like Armstrong. Indeed, during the 2009 Tour, he was chided by those who recognized him for doing a puff piece on Armstrong.

Fortunately for The Armstrong Lie, the performance-enhancing drug allegations that followed Armstrong throughout his record-setting career like ravens came home to roost and Gibney found his valued conflict. Interviewing Armstrong and those around him during his career, Gibney gets at versions of the truth, but in Armstrong’s case they were always mitigated by his prickly, intense dedication to his own image as a self-confident, all-American winner whose story could change the world if the haters would just let it. Though he can no longer deny that he doped during his now-vacated dominance of the Tour a decade ago, Armstrong clings to certain details of the tale as tenaciously as he once clung to the claim that he never doped at all.

Gibney asks the right questions about how and why Armstrong maintained the illusion of himself as a clean cyclist, and gets some hard answers (respectively, how: with outright, aggressive denials and threats and bullying to potential whistleblowers, and why: for the money and the fame). He subsumes what must be his own bitterness at being duped and used by Armstrong for his own ends, alluding to the desire held by not only himself but by many millions of people to be fooled by Armstrong, to believe in what he called the “miracle” of his cancer recovery and subsequent sporting triumphs. At the core of this will to delusion is a most American willingness to buy into stories that are too good to be true, which almost inevitably are.

The specific question that neither Gibney nor any of his subjects bothers to ask, however, is why Armstrong was wrong for employing a drug-enhanced means that practically every cycling champion for years has likewise employed to reach the same victorious end. Of course Armstrong doped. If all of the men he was beating did too, then how could he beat them? The margins in a high-level sport like cycling are thin, and they cannot be so easily extended by means of work ethic and stirrings of inspiration. The question that no one bothers to ask is, Why is doping illegal in cycling if everyone will always do it? Why not explicitly allow and regulate rather than ban and implicitly allow on the sport’s dark side? The preference for ineffective moralizing and scattershot enforcement over pragmatic integration hurt cycling deeply, but then it’s been hurt that way for a century and seems able to stand the affliction.

No one can ask the question on camera, of course, since most everyone has a past, a present and a future in the sport to protect. There’s also a strange code to cycling, a set of arcane rules to team racing and the peloton, that compels cooperation and silence about what goes on behind the scenes, especially if what goes on happens to be against the rules of the sport. In such a closed world, what Lance Armstrong got away with seems entirely predictable and appropriate. His lie was a narrative, and his narrative was a lie. Public outrage is directed at him for telling it (and for using federal taxpayer money to do so, through the US Postal Service’s sponsorship of him and his team in the 2000s), and he doesn’t not deserve it. But that outrage must be directed inwards too, at those who accepted his lie as a narrative when really, truly, they ought to have known better.

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Categories: Film, Reviews, Sports
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