Non-fiction filmmaker Alex Gibney has made two extraordinary investigative films – "Taxi to the Dark Side" about the torture of a cab driver in Afghanistan by American military, and "Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room", about the financial shenanigans at the infamous energy company. Both of those films make secret information public.
Gibney’s new film though, "The Armstrong Lie", doesn’t reveal or discover anything at all.
The Armstrong story is well-known; he told most of it to Oprah Winfrey, on national television. In short, Armstrong used performance-enhancing substances in every one of the seven Tour de France races that he won. He lied about it for years, and Alex Gibney isn’t so sure Armstrong isn’t still lying.
So, as a film about what happened and what Lance Armstrong did, "The Armstrong Lie" is unexceptional. But what obsesses director Alex Gibney is not just why people believed Lance Armstrong for years in the face of ever mounting evidence, but why do a fair number of people still want to believe him, even after Armstrong has confessed – at least in part.
Gibney built his movie from interviews with people in the cycling world, a post-confessional interview with Armstrong, tons of footage of Armstrong racing and Armstrong lying, and some touching images of Armstrong during his struggle with testicular cancer. You can’t resist being moved by the sight of this athletic young man looking bald, skinny and terribly weak. There’s no lack of footage of Lance Armstrong, and he is a terrific liar.
Gibney presents this material with his own personal narration. He’d set out to make a film about Armstrong’s attempt at a comeback in 2009, when after four years of retirement, Armstrong once again rode in the Tour de France. But before Gibney could finish that film, Armstrong’s wall of lies collapsed and he was disgraced – at least sort of. Gibney’s film became a piece about himself and his struggle to look at Armstrong objectively. Gibney tries to understand his own reluctance to reject Lance Armstrong, which was so strong he couldn’t stop himself from cheering for the old athlete to regain his stature in that last Tour de France. And Gibney is not alone.
It seems to me that Lance Armstrong is a lot like an ancient mythological figure called the trickster, found in most cultures around the world – like the Scandinavian Loki or the North American Indian Wak’djunkaga. Tricksters embody contradictions. They’re good and bad at the same time; sometimes they’re male and female at the same time. And they confound us. We human beings don’t much like such blatant contradictions because we have trouble admiring and scorning someone at the same time.
For years, the evidence against Lance Armstrong, that he cheated, grew and grew. His denials seemed absurd. At the same time, though, at least in public, he could be a charmer. The public never saw the vicious side of Lance Armstrong, and watching him pedal up those immense climbs in the Pyrenees was thrilling. The shots of Armstrong riding are still thrilling – in spite of our knowing that he was getting one huge chemical boost.
Obviously, many of us – most of us – wanted to believe Armstrong really was that good, and we wanted to believe so badly that we simply did. We believed, and hoped, or whatever. And we bought into the smile, the lies – partly, of course, because whatever assist Armstrong gave himself was invisible. But what could be seen was a series of stunning athletic feats. And still, if you ever saw Armstrong ride, you can’t get it out of your head. He was really good; he was really bad – and "The Armstrong Lie" just nails that most unresolvable feeling.