On Friday, The Armstrong Lie opens in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. In September, Triathlon Magazine Canada’s managing editor Suzanne Zelazo and Canadian Running Magazine’s editor-in-chief Michael Doyle, both also contributing editors at CCM, caught the North American premiere of Alex Gibney’s documentary at the Toronto International Film Festival. Here’s some of their discussion on the film.
Suzanne Zelazo After watching The Armstrong Lie, I expected to be completely firm in my loathing of the deceptive, arrogant, Machiavellian subject. But, I came away with some sympathy for Lance and I’m not exactly sure why. It might be the way director Alex Gibney captured emotional nuances in Armstrong that I assumed the cyclist didn’t have. I’m thinking for example, of his statements to Frankie Andreu immediately after failing to win in his comeback Tour de France in 2009. With just a hint of tears in his eyes, Armstrong seemed to be talking to an old friend and not a reporter. He recognized his limitations even and apologized for them. He seemed less horrible to me. Did you get that sense at all?
Michael Doyle I didn’t quite have the same reaction to the portrayal of his character. I admit I did find him much more fascinating after leaving the screening of the film. But I now find him a tragic, pitiful character. I found him to be pathetic, quite frankly. I don’t mean to sound cruel here; it’s sad to see him essentially alone throughout much of the film. We’ve often heard about his protective entourage, but in this film he was mostly just this sad, lonely, arrogant guy at the end of his career. It seemed like no one on the Astana team wanted to have anything to do with him. Although, I did find the filmmaking quite effective; we’re strangely lured into cheering for Lance during the mountain stage of his comeback Tour. It was the stuff of tragedy that he would end up losing to Alberto Contador, who seemed like a young, Eurotrash incarnation of Armstrong. Meanwhile, Lance reminded me of Elvis playing his last gig in Germany in ’68.
One of the sadder moments of the film came after his comeback third-place finish. It’s implied that he again had to resort to cheating in order to salvage some sort of a comeback. This detail comes after Gibney suckered us into actually rooting for Lance. I think this was an extraordinary turn that sums up why it is that Armstrong is such a disappointing figure in sport.
Also, the members of the panel discussion that followed the film, which included Gibney, Jonathan Vaughters, Betsy Andreu, Bill Strickland and producer Frank Marshall all seemed convinced that the cycling was en route to becoming a completely clean sport, primarily due to the use of the biological passport. This view seemed a touch naive to me. Am I the only one that now not only has Lance fatigue, but Betsy Andreu fatigue as well.
SZ I agree. The hopeful summation during the Q&A seemed too smug. Drugs in sport don’t seem to be going anywhere. The film left me concerned that even in triathlon performance enhancing drugs are being used from the pro ranks down to the mid-pack age-groupers. The “secrets” of how and what Lance and his team did gave me insight into many over-the-top performances I’ve witnessed recently by athletes that seem to come from nowhere, or whose previous efforts were strikingly different. This situation saddens me immensely. For those of us who race clean, how do you compete? That a one-time hero managed to cheat will only give some athletes the emotional and intellectual go-ahead to dope. Call me pessimistic here, but everything WADA or USADA does to try prevent cheating seems to get circumvented by athletes who know the right people, have the right amount of money and have the will to break the rules.
As for Betsy Andreu, there is a big personality there to be sure, but any time someone stands up for what’s right, I have to hand it them.
MD After lights came on at the end of the screening, I wish I could have just watched this film instead of having to endure the last decade or so of Lance. It’s a really well constructed film. There was a nice amount of archival footage of the younger gun-slinging Lance. The summary of the history of the Tour and how pro cycling works were informative without being awkward for knowledgeable cycling fans. The backbone of the film is the 2009 comeback Tour footage. It’s used effectively throughout. With it, the filmmaker balanced the bait and switch of illustrating why it was that many were hypnotized by Armstrong, and why he is ultimately such a perfect villain.
I was worried going in to the screening that Gibney had made a polemical screed or a pat film that would handle Lance a little too gently. Instead, the film finds its way through those two easier extremes and settles somewhere, well, more unsettling.
The most unusual takeaway from this film was that competition can become repulsive. It’s fairly incredible when you think of it: the Tour is perhaps the most gruelling and impressive endurance contest to win; and yet I found myself thinking, “dude, relax, it’s just a race.” I suppose that’s what makes Lance such a compelling figure. He sacrificed everything in order to win. The only catch is that you aren’t really the winner if you didn’t play by the rules. The most telling moment in the film is when Lance is sitting with Gibney in a hotel room after the cyclist knows he’s not going to win the tour. He looks into the camera and says, “I fucked up your documentary.”