Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A Masterful Look at Deception - A Sad Portrait of a Cheater

As I walked out of the theater where I saw The Armstrong Lie, I stopped to ask a gentleman who had also viewed the film if he could believe the story he had just seen. I didn't know this person, but I had to talk to someone right away about this experience; that's how strong a film this is. This gentleman, by the way, merely shook his head, confirming what I thought. 

The Armstrong Lie is the latest work of documentarian Alex Gibney, whose previous films include Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005), Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (2010) and Taxi to the Dark Side (2007); this last work was awarded an Oscar for Best Documentary. Gibney is fascinated by famous individuals who lie; the common theme in these films is that power can - in the minds of these people - become such an overwhelming drive in their behavior, that they can't even recognize they are lying, or if they can, don't see their mistruths as harmful.

The story of Lance Armstrong - overcoming testicular cancer and then winning the prestigious Tour de France bicycle race seven years in a row - is well known by now. Of course, anyone who's familiar with this tale also knows that Armstrong was accused of cheating via doping and other means almost from Day One after his first victory in France. Armstrong was eventually stripped of his seven titles and himself admitted in an interview with Oprah Winfey that he did take illegal substances during these races.

It's a story that has dominated headlines almost around the world for the past decade and given the sensational nature of the details, I would think that any filmmaker with average talent could make a watchable documentary about Armstrong and his adventures. Thankfully, Gibney is far more than an average craftsman, as he has certainly become one of the most important documentarians in America, but also arguably one of the three finest (along with Frederick Wiseman and Errol Morris). One of his strengths is taking a complex story, compiling all its elements and turning it into a very watchable film. That talent was certainly on display in Enron an it's a major strength of this multi-layered tale as well.

Gibney goes even deeper here, as he had access to Armstrong while all this was going on. The documentarian originally set out to make a film about Armstrong's comeback at the Tour de France in 2009; after having won the race every year from 1999-2005, he walked away. Yet his competitive nature drew him back a few years later; that and a desire to clear his name, as he told Gibney he was going to ride "clean," so no one could ever accuse him again of doping, especially if he won in 2009. However when the accusations became truths, Gibney had to abandon his film, at least as far as being about the comeback. Now his new film, after the rider admitted his transgressions in 2012, would be about the big picture - why did Armstrong cheat?

The centerpiece of the film is a brief interview Gibney filmed with Armstong five months after his appearance with Winfrey. The athlete admits, quite often, he believed in what he did was right "at the time" (he uses that phrase several times) and clearly seems at least a bit embarrassed by his previous actions. Yet he still maintains that he did not cheat, his reasoning being that if every cyclist in the Tour did things illegally (doping as well as blood transfusions), he fit right in - he wasn't violating any set of rules, at least in his mind.

The fact that Gibney trusted Armstrong - as did millions of people - puts a clever spin on the filmmaker's work, as he feels betrayed. So it becomes more than an objective piece of work - though in reality, what documentary can be 100% objective? - and is realized as a masterful telling not only of Armstrong's cheating, but also his despicable actions against his former teammates.

There is so much to admire in this film, not only in the way Gibney arranges this work to help the viewer understand all the components at work here (such as explaining how blood transfusions help a cyclist achieve a higher performance level), but also visually. There are images, both of the Tour de France as well as the Giro d'Italia - a race that takes place a few months earlier each year - that are simply beautiful. There is one shot taken with a long focal length lens of a man sitting with his family  in a field watching the riders race along; he waves a small flag and we are transfixed on that flag as the cyclists travel by in a blur. It's also neat to see his camera closeup during the actual race, as we see how close the public, lining the roads, get to the athletes; it must be a bit claustrophobic for the riders. We come away with a great feel for what it's like to watch as well as ride in this race. Yes, there are simple images of documents as well as straightforward interviews, but when Gibney fixes his cameras on the athletes, the film becomes beautiful; his compositions in this work are among his very best.

Gibney does balance out the film, documenting many things in Armstrong's life, from dramatic photos of him after his cancer surgery to scenes of him visiting cancer-ridden children in hospitals - the athlete seems genuine in his concern for the ill youngsters - so this is not a one-sided view of this story. But the filmmaker clearly feels for the many victims in this saga, especially one of Armstrong's former teammates, Frankie Andreu and his wife Betsy, who were treated as though they were lower than dirt after accusing the rider of injecting himself with a banned substance. Andreu's tale is a somber one and it shows how despicable Armstrong's actions were, as well as giving us insight into the power he once had; if Armstrong said that their accusations were worthless, we (at least most of us) believed Armstrong. It was the power he branded over others that may have been the worst part of this tale, Gibney seems to be arguing throughout much of the film.

This is an important documentary that goes far beyond telling this story; it's an examination of hero worship in America and around the world and it leads us to think about how we can be so easily deceived. Perhaps we need heroes so badly that we can't see clearly when they turn out to be flawed creatures. 

Alex Gibney has made an exceptional film, one that challenges the viewer far beyond the details of this saga. Terrific work, Alex!

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