The Armstrong Lie – Examines a Epic Lie
Alex Gibney, the Oscar winning documentary film-maker, is very good at unmasking the stories behind a scandal. His previous screen subjects included corporate big giant (“Enron”), U.S. military (“Taxi to the Dark Side”) and a politicians sexual misdeeds (“Client 9”). He recently analyzed the rise and fall of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in “We Steal Secrets.” Now, he is back with another rise and fall narrative – may be the most compelling one of our generation. The disgraced hero’s story “The Armstrong Lie” (2013) is not just a detailed account of Armstrong’s deceptiveness, but also a layered one, which probes into the culture of competitiveness, hypocrisy and celebrity that helped to sustain this myth. Gibney – a fan and friend — originally started making this documentary in 2008 as Armstrong prepared to make a return to competitive cycling. So what started as a celebratory and inspirational project (about 2009 Tour de France comeback) ended up being an indictment.
Gibney, the man who had easily spotted a con or a scandal, admits that he was every bit as caught up as the next guy with Armstrong’s fairy-tale of beating cancer in 1996 and then winning the Tour de France seven times over. After 2009, the doping cover-ups started to unravel one by one. Gibney could have walked away from the project, but chose to shift his documentary into an expose mode and opted for seeking the whole truth behind all these untruths. Gibney uses the Oprah Winfrey show to set the stage for his narrative. He starts with his 1996 astounding recovery from the testicular cancer. Through the whistle-blowers who later turned on Armstrong, he also establishes that everybody was ruthless in the sport of Pro-Cycling in the 1990s and early 2000s.
By winning seven consecutive Tour de France titles (1999-2005), Armstrong made himself to be one of the world’s greatest athletes. The fatherless guy from Texas, who beat Cancer, won titles and established a $300 million cancer support foundation is the sort of story, which inspired and boosted everyone around the world. His book was a best seller and earned him $125 million. Suddenly he became a celebrity and even fans who didn’t know about cycling (like me) were awed by this guy’s too-good-to-be-true tale. But, Gibney’s film brings out the dark side of this athlete: took banned substances such as testosterone, EPO and even his own recycled blood; used his celebrity status to fight his accusers with the same competitive zeal he applied to bicycle racing; swindled sponsors and his friends. The greatest irony is that, as Gibney points out, none of his secret might have been publicly exposed had he been content to stay retired. The fervor for grabbing the spotlight, eventually busted him.
The second comeback, angered numerous cyclists, many of them busted and were also his former teammates. Slowly the noose tightened around Armstrong as teammates struck deals with cycling officials and with the federal investigators. They had first-hand knowledge of Armstrong’s uses of drugs. The most forceful and outspoken person, who was against Armstrong is Betsy Andreu, wife of former teammate Andreu. She tells how the most famous sportsman used his reputation to destroy her and other participants.
Gibney gained access to interview Michele Ferrari, known as ‘doping doctor.’ The doctor was obsessed in pushing the human body beyond its physical limits and so by using Armstrong, he devised most advanced and sophisticated performance-enhancing drugs available. Apart from Ferrari, Gibney notes that the International Cycling Union (UCI) is also complicit in Armstrong’s bogus wins. The officials of UCI knew that the doping was rampant in this sport, but turned a blind eye to nurture the hero narrative. One of the interviewee points out that victory in this sport is gained by only those with the best medical and financial resources.
We never get a convincing apology or regret from Armstrong or the definite proof that he didn’t use any banned substance in 2009 Tour de France. May be he sincerely regrets his actions or sorry for letting himself get caught. It is something, even Gibney couldn’t find out. “Armstrong Lie” is a haunting, myth-shattering documentary. It brings out the hidden facts that has justified the years of systematic doping and deceit. It also asks, ‘which is sadder?’ – Armstrong’s deception or his fans’ blind belief?