“I didn’t live a lot of lies,” says Lance Armstrong in Alex Gibney’s new documentary. “I lived one big one.”
That’s probably the only time Armstrong understated one of his achievements. Gibney’s probing portrait of the cyclist-celebrity, “The Armstrong Lie,” shows a career founded on doping, denial and relentless character assassination of anyone who challenged him.
Gibney began the project in 2009 as an admirer. At that time, despite the drugging rumors that dogged him, Armstrong’s millions of fans considered him a fierce competitor, an inspirational cancer survivor and a national hero.
The film Gibney originally set out to make, “Lance Armstrong: The Road Back,” was to have focused on his comeback year with the then 38-year-old “old man” racing against a young pack. “A fun film,” Gibney said in a recent interview. Gibney considered Armstrong “a legitimate athlete, the best of a bad era,” with most of his competition breaking the rules as well.
He was skeptical of Armstrong’s claim that he competed drug-free, but no one would say otherwise on the record. As for Armstrong, the same iron will that made him a formidable athlete — “the cruel thrill at beating people” — enabled him to lie to Gibney straight-faced, directly and repeatedly, on camera.
“I was caught up in the ride,” said Gibney. He admitted it was a stroke of blind luck that Armstrong’s public downfall occurred before he completed his original film. “It went from ‘Breaking Away’ to ‘Breaking Bad,’ ” he said.
Gibney filmed an extensive interview with Armstrong after his cheating was exposed, but found him not much changed from the man he met four years earlier. “It remains to be seen if he’ll ever adequately address how deeply he disappointed all of us.”
Esquire magazine describes Gibney, who lives in New Jersey, as “becoming the most important documentarian of our time.” It’s a reasonable assessment. The 60-year-old writer/director/producer has won an Oscar, Emmy, Peabody and even a Grammy. He’s tackled long-form journalism (such as the 10-part PBS series “The Pacific Century”), in-depth cultural history (producing and compiling the 5-CD soundtrack for Martin Scorsese’s “The Blues”). He’s documented the wrongs of some of the rankest crooks and hypocrites of the past decade, from D.C. lobbyist Jack Abramoff, to Enron executives, to disgraced New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer.
Gibney said he faced no opposition in finishing the film from Armstrong, who faces ongoing lawsuits from former sponsors. In the film, Armstrong explains how easily drug tests could be defeated, giving his earlier protests of wounded innocence a darkly humorous resonance.
Gibney believes Armstrong sees coming clean as a step in the process of rebuilding his superstar status, a matter of performance art more than true remorse. By appearing in Gibney’s post-scandal interview, he hoped to manipulate the telling to his advantage. “He’s still curating his myth.”
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186