Oh, this is a treat: buy one film, get two for free…
1) This is a film about a documentary film maker of high reputation who finds himself captured in the least pleasant of all situations: realising that he has been tricked into making what someone in the film calls a “puff piece” intended to spruce up the reputation of a criminal and a bully. To make a corporate video for a company producing nuclear weapons suggesting that all they are really doing is producing a cure for cancer.
I cannot imagine how angry Gibney must have been when he learned (for sure in the newspaper, not by his “client”) that he’d been had, that everything he had been told had been a lie. He must have been mostly angry about himself, though: As somebody who (a guess) has not been traditionally following professional cycling, he was certainly wondering how he could have possibly believed all the bullshit he was fed by Armstrong.
Still completing the film, and managing to get Armstrong in front of the camera for one more interview, is quite an achievement. Gibney understands that this film will not and cannot be judged as a normal documentary anymore once he himself becomes part of the story. At some point another camera crew shows up at the Tour de France, working on an “anti-Gibney” film. Given those circumstances, I say “chapeau!” to Gibney for being able to pull it off the way he does, and for being frank and self-reflective about his own failure. That’s more than can be said about the subject matter of the film, Lance Armstrong.
2) It is a film about a former cyclist who will never be allowed to compete again and has managed to put himself into the position as uncontested major disgrace of a sport that had its generous share of disgrace over the last century. And he did not achieve this by taking illegal substances, but by being himself… There used to be a coach in German football, a good one, great at motivating his team, achieving things previously considered pretty much unachievable for his players. Word got out that he had a thing for drugs and hookers, and was pretty much constantly under the influence of cocaine during games. Fed up with the allegations, during a press conference he offered to provide a hair sample for drug trace analysis. Offer accepted, the analysis confirmed traces of cocaine use, coach fired, his career in German top-level club football done. His position as favourite for taking over the national team in shambles.
Why would anybody do such a thing? Not doing something illegal, I mean, but why would anybody insist on running ahead with a story that can only lead to personal doomsday? Because of a disease called super-ego, a delusion of being invincible, beyond the limits of sheer humans.
The fact that an extremely successful cyclist used performance-enhancing drugs during the majority of his career is non-news. Sufficient evidence was provided over the years against Armstrong, and the only reason why he did not get banned was the power of his lawyers, his relationship with cycling federation UCI, and the ruthless intimidation of anybody who would voice a word of criticism. I don’t believe that there has been a single serious cycling observer who actually believed Armstrong did never use drugs during his Tour de France wins. However, apart from being an outstanding cyclist, Armstrong also became a pop culture phenomenon. He made cycling popular in a country that traditionally had little to do with this sport. He established the link between himself as a sports hero despite his sport being certainly exotic to most Americans, a cancer survivor, a combatant for help others with similar disease histories, an outspoken media personality (quite rare among those cyclists…), he set up a network of highly lucrative sponsorship arrangements (managing to use US tax dollars for drug trafficking, as it turns out). And he achieved all that despite openly displaying himself to be a character that could not be more despicable.
Armstrong’s part of this story is not that he took drugs, but the arrogance with which he attacked anybody who said he did, the aggression with which he destroyed more than just one career of people on the media side or of fellow members of the Tour de France peloton. Whoever wants to know what kind of person Armstrong was (and still is, for all I know) just needs to remember the case of Filippo Simeoni’s breakaway attempt at the 2004 Tour de France, and Armstrong’s reaction to it. Even if Armstrong had never used a single illegal substance, his actions on that day showed to anybody interested that he was not just a lying cheat, but also an asshole the likes of which are hard to be found.
I think this is where the film actually achieves something: to distinguish between a pro cyclist using drugs, for which there is a way of understanding, processing and eventually forgiving – and a person who is savagely arrogant, crossing all boundaries of human decency and believing he can get away with it. Sad to say, but to be found guilty of drug use is not such a big deal in pro cycling: in a certain generation of riders (of which Armstrong was a part) it is fair to guess that all top riders engaged in doping in one form or the other. This is the irony of it: Despite all his failings, Lance Armstrong should probably still be considered one of the greatest riders there ever was. It is most likely true what he claims: that doping in this age did not provide an unfair advantage, but rather reestablished a level playing field with the other top riders. However: Richard Virenque, Erik Zabel, Alex Zülle… they are still popular in their countries, despite, sometimes because of their (limited) confessions. Marco Pantani is still a national hero in Italy, albeit a tragic and a dead one.
Armstrong managed, out of sheer arrogance, to destroy this part of his legacy, the part of great sports achievement. He managed to not only ruin his own career (and I would guess his finances, with all the damage claims piling up towards hundreds of millions of dollars). He also has damaged the commendable cause of the cancer-victim support foundation he stood for. His kids show up in the film, and that made me wonder how he will respond to their questions that will certainly come in a couple of years about why he did what he did, how he justified all this to himself.
3) It is a film about professional cycling, which in my book is the greatest and most stunning sport in terms of what the top performers have to endure and what they achieve. It seems that doping scandals cannot really change that. That sport is strangely unbreakable, even though people like Armstrong tried hard.