Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Movie Review: The Armstrong Lie

The Armstrong Lie
Directed by: Alex Gibney.
Written by:  Alex Gibney. 

Director Alex Gibney is a smart guy. Since his breakthrough film in 2005 – Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room – he has also been the most prolific documentary filmmaker I can think of – making a series of feature documentaries, as well as documentaries for TV and as part of omnibus films – ranging from political films to sports films to the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church to portraits of artists and writers to his last film before The Armstrong Lie – We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks. We seemingly cannot go a year without at least one new Gibney film coming out – often more than that. He won an Oscar for Taxi to the Dark Side – which is a great film in itself, even if I think his Eliot Spitzer documentary, Client 9, or the Enron doc are even better. In short, Gibney has made a nice career for himself as a documentary filmmaker – often telling stories about people who are liars. That was one of my problems with The Armstrong Lie – which is basically a fine documentary, albeit a none too surprising one. In 2009 Gibney was given access to Armstrong and his team as he attempted his comeback at the Tour de France after three years away. Armstrong wanted to win again, and erase all doubt that he cheated by using performance enhancing drugs – and Gibney says he wholeheartedly believed Armstrong – and felt betrayed when it was proven that Armstrong did in fact cheat – not just in 2009 but in all his Tour de France victories. My question is this: Did anyone really “wholeheartedly” believe in Armstrong in 2009? There was already enough evidence to at least cast doubt – and certainly someone like Gibney, who made many docs about liars, should have at least been suspicious.

The film jumps around in time – perhaps a little too much – from 2009 when Gibney had more access than anyone else to Armstrong (still not complete, as Armstrong and his handlers try desperately to control his public image) to the aftermath of the final proof that Armstrong did in fact cheat, and his interview with Oprah where Armstrong came kind of clean – but still justified everything he did by basically saying “Well everyone else did it. I just did it better”. And then we also flashback to the 1990s as Armstrong battles back from cancer, and to his various other Tour de France victories – and all the allegations that followed each and every one. Basically the film becomes a portrait of a man who lies nearly constantly – and his lies are so big and so bold that many people believe them. They believe them because they want to believe them. It’s too good a story for a cancer survivor to come back from death’s door to become one of the greatest athletes on the planet not to want to believe it. Which, of course, is precisely why we shouldn’t have believed it in the first place. Armstrong isn’t even that good of a liar – he freezes, he pauses, he gets overly defensive, his smile seems phony. Of course, I say that in retrospect when we know he’s lying, but there are plenty of people who didn’t believe him Armstrong the whole time. After all, if everyone else who finishes near the top of the Tour de France is caught cheating – and they all were – how the hell could Armstrong not be cheating? How much better can he possibly be?

Rare for a Gibney movie, he places himself in the thick of the action for this film. He isn’t normally a Michael Moore type who thrusts himself into the movie, but although we don’t see Gibney often, we hear him a lot – and this is not typical third person documentary narration, but very personal narration. Gibney is mad because Armstrong looked him in the eye and lied to him – and because Gibney believed that lie and now feels betrayed. Gibney’s personal narrative in the film didn’t interest me much – mainly because I didn’t buy it. However, there is a bigger story here about Armstrong, lying and the culture of professional sports where the attitude has become win at all costs. We were probably naïve to think it was ever anything but win at all costs – but I don’t think we can anymore. The Armstrong Lie isn’t one of Gibney’s best documentaries – but it’s a fascinating one just the same. Besides, I’m sure they’ll be another Gibney doc along any minute now. Maybe that one will rank higher.

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