Audiences will sit down to Alex Gibney’s new film, The Armstrong Lie, wanting to believe that thoroughly disgraced cyclist and athlete Lance Armstrong will come clean in a far more humbling fashion than he did with Oprah Winfrey at the height of the collapse of his empire built upon the notion that he was racing without the benefit of any degree of performance enhancement. Armstrong didn’t just dupe the public. His crime went much deeper than merely lying. He brandished his lie as something more than truth; it was a righteous weapon, a shield of honor protecting the epic myth of Armstrong as a paragon of virtue, allowing him to transition from victim of cancer to survivor to champion to beloved philanthropist to savior of a sport plagued by cheaters. Armstrong was the only clean combatant in the vast and depraved cycling world. The only hero.
Except he wasn’t. Not even close.
It is fascinating to watch him early on in Gibney’s film, as he talks about the situation he now finds himself in. He says something to the effect that what happened came as a result of “not a lot of lies, just one big one,” but I’m here to argue that this is just another in the long string of lies that Armstrong has told since 1999. The title, The Armstrong Lie, comes from a French article, an in-depth investigative piece on his involvement in a performance enhancement scandal that went much further than his cycling team — U.S. Postal — possibly all the way up the ranks of the championship cycling association. The intricate web of deception included trainers and testing groups, financial institutions, charitable foundations and, ultimately, the international fans of the sport.
Without getting into the specifics here (I’ll leave it to viewers to watch and pay attention for themselves), the film presents a compelling case against Armstrong, largely based on his own testimony, because throughout, Armstrong admits to lie after lie.
He used any and all manner of illegal enhancements during each and every one of his Tour de France wins. Through his trainers and other team members, he tapped into a network that allowed him access to information that would enable him to break the rules without getting caught.
He did so because he believed that everyone else in the sport was doing the same things. His teammates joined him in these efforts because he did it and he was their leader, which meant he, in effect, created a syndicate of conspirators who would be unable to rat him out without incriminating themselves.
There’s pathology at play in his actions, though, that grants him a rationale he embraces like a lifeline: Armstrong is a cancer survivor. He went through a very private hell fighting the disease. It nearly killed him, but by coming out the other side, to him, every fight from then on would be compared to that battle. Losing would be equated with death, so, like any human, he was willing to do anything to win, to cheat death.
Watching Armstrong onscreen, it is difficult to not recall similar figures caught up in public scandals. Gibney has documented his fair share of these cases, like Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, and, in fact, it is that film’s interview with former New York Governor Spitzer that played alongside The Armstrong Lie in my head, like a docu-call and response hook in a reality-based suite of public post-modern blues. Blaring samples of the lies get cut and pasted next to whispers of the truth that come across like sweet nothings submerged in the bomb squad-styled sound mix. Don’t believe the hype, we’ve been told, but we did and it killed more than our faith.
I can’t understand how people, even someone like Gibney, can hold onto the belief that Armstrong is now finally telling the truth, because there is no truth anymore. How can we trust what we hear, what we see? What is the truth about this man and his journey? Is his “lie” justified by the good that came as a result of it — the millions raised for cancer research and to support families? What are we to make of the man who, while touring hospitals and hospices, was waging war on those daring to speak out against him? He was ruthless, a killer. So how can — and should — he be punished?
His “lie” was a weapon of mass destruction and it could be argued that, even today, there are still some Armstrong lies that remain alive and active, stronger thanks to Gibney’s film. (Opens Friday at Esquire Theatre) (R) Grade: A
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