What is there left to be said about cyclist Lance Armstrong? Everyone including non-cycling fans has an opinion about the guy and for the great majority it is not positive. A high percentage of people have labelled him as a liar and a cheat. Even going so far as to calling him a bully for his treatment of teammates. These are the thoughts I had going into the watching of this documentary – what more could director Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) bring to the story? Would it be a puff piece or a thorough investigative effort? Many questions surrounding the film as many as surround the man himself.
Academy Award-winning documentary director (Best Documentary – Taxi to the Dark Side – 2007) Alex Gibney was charged with making a documentary about Lance Armstrong’s come back to cycling in 2009. It was a great opportunity as the eyes of the world – sports fans or not – were on the Tour de France 2009. Many around cycling thought that Gibney was only going to be doing a puff piece that would benefit Armstrong. Show him in a good light and not really attempt to get at any of the truth. A logical assumption as the original film that Gibney was making was titled “The Road Back”.
The truth that people in cycling and some media wanted Gibney to bring to light once and for all was that surrounding the belief that the seven time Tour de France winner had been doping all along. Although Armstrong had never tested positive for human growth hormones, blood transfusions, EPOs or the like it was widely believed that his superhuman achievements were too good to be true. Cancer survivor, multiple winner of the most challenging test in sport and massive fundraiser for cancer research was all too much for many to accept. Cycling was seen as one of the dirtiest of sports and as such so too must Armstrong be dirty.
In a strange turn of events after following Armstrong around for 4 years documenting the cyclist’s comeback everything fell apart when the man himself admitted to doping. The admission came after insurmountable evidence against him. Now the film became one about a fall from grace from the highest of pedestals. Armstrong was banned for life from cycling and stripped of his seven Tour de France victories along with his Olympic medal. The documentary starts again hours after Armstrong’s confession in an interview with Oprah Winfrey. It now endeavours to show how he got away with such a big lie for so many years. Besides all the film he already had Gibney uses an in depth interview with Armstrong from June of 2013 to flesh things out.
While some might focus on the doping aspect of the story what is actually the most important and interesting is the abuse of power. Armstrong used his power, money and influence in order to bully teammates and the media into keeping his dirty secret. A combination of cutting-edge doping techniques and intimidation of the likes of which have rarely been seen in sport kept Armstrong on the top of a heap of other cyclists which were also doping, but were revealed to be while he remained untouched.
Millions of fans helped Armstrong’s Livestrong Foundation to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for cancer research. Armstrong was himself a survivor of testicular cancer that spread to his brain, so many wanted the story to be true. For the man to miraculously come back to the top and to also unselfishly raise money for cancer research. It all has the makings of a Greek tragedy.
As such all this makes it a riveting documentary even for non-cycling fans. Watching the fall from grace of an icon, though a little horrible to admit enjoying, is rather entertaining.
-Q+A With Alex Gibney, Frank Marshall, Bill Strickland, Jonathan Vaughters and Betsey Andreu
-Previews for The Invisible Woman, Blue Jasmine, Wadjda, The Patience Stone, Kill Your Darling, The Past