In no other place are we so desperate to crown monarchs, to live vicariously through victory and wealth, than in the realm of celebrity. We are smitten by the success of others. In Lance Armstrong, we were given a character for the ages. A man born to a single mother in East Nowhere, Texas. A cancer survivor who rose to prominence in a sport dominated by Europeans and ignored by Americans. While Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, and Brett Favre were preceded by Julius Erving, Bobby Orr, and Roger Staubach, Armstrong was a singular entity, the king of a land that had just been discovered. He dated rock stars and supermodels. He was handsome and wealthy. His celebrity was virginal, and unique in the glimmering magazine cover world dominated by common and contrived stories.
And it was, in its entirety, built on lies all too familiar. Built on vengeance. Cheating. A complex system of blood doping and performance-enhancing drugs designed to take him to the forefront of his sport, and the heights of celebrity.
Alex Gibney’s The Armstrong Lie began as a tale of redemption. In 2009, the disgraced cyclist returned to the scene of his greatest achievements, the Tour de France, where he had won a record seven titles, and brought Gibney and crew to capture his comeback. But, once again, Armstrong (as is now well-documented) was caught cheating and doping, and Gibney’s film was put on hiatus. Four years later, Armstrong reached out to Gibney to set the record straight on his marred career, and the documentary became a story of a man so driven to greatness, so oblivious to his own self-destructive nature, that he was deluded into believing he had yet another comeback in him, a comeback not in competition, but in the public spectrum, one that would feature Oprah in a supporting role as his hand-picked interviewer/enabler/PR shill, and one that Gibney would capture for posterity.
Unfortunately, both the film and its subject are deeply flawed. Armstrong is fearlessly naïve about his ability to dope without being caught, to charm without being transparent-- and Gibney is so taken by Armstrong’s aura and the story he hopes to tell that he raises the question as to why viewers have been asked to empathize with a ruthless, destructive, vindictive cheat. In footage shot during the 2009 Tour comeback, Armstrong and Gibney come off as teammates, certainly more than Armstrong and his actual teammates, who more closely resemble reluctant participants in the lies. Gibney, on more than one occasion in his narration and the film’s action, reveals himself to be cheering for Armstrong, a revelation both awkward for the audience and counter to the medium of documentary. A successful documentary revels in its subject and defines the immersive; it puts the viewer at the story’s core and the filmmaker in the quiet shadows. The Armstrong Lie takes on a promotional tone, and though Armstrong’s warts are revealed, Gibney foolishly attempts to apply cover-up, by shifting blame or asserting over-and-over that everyone in cycling was doping, to conceal what the audience is already well aware of, that Armstrong cheated his way to celebrity, and did so with no care for those around him. Armstrong uses Gibney as he used his teammates, his celebrity, his fans, and his sport.
What is also startling about The Armstrong Lie’s failings is its overt effort to isolate Armstrong, a man who defines isolation through his manner and sport. Whether it be from former teammates, Italian doping doctor Michele Ferrari, or Gibney himself, the film tries desperately to reveal Armstrong as a loner, a man on a mission to dominate a sport, and attain celebrity no matter the cost. However, Armstrong does this with little or no help. Gibney’s heavy hand is present throughout, most notably through the near total absence of Armstrong’s family. Some of his children appear for a moment, when they are awkward witnesses to a surprise drug test, a test seemingly as common as the breakfast it interrupts. Armstrong’s first wife is not mentioned. His current partner is acknowledged briefly, as are his dalliances in celebrity dating. Perhaps Gibney wanted viewers to simply assume known facts--but this comes across as an attempt by a director to find the movie he wants, and not the film unfolding before him.
What appears above may seem like an indictment of the film, though it is anything but. Through his complicity in the Armstrong lie, Gibney reveals the very manner in which we are all complicit in the deception of celebrity. While Gibney shows Armstrong with children struggling with cancer as an attempt to elicit empathy, instead we see a man who will use anyone, including children suffering from the very disease that nearly claimed his life, in order to disguise the truth of his being. Gibney is as taken by Armstrong as the children are, as the cameras are, as we were.
During the height of the Armstrong affair I appeared on the sports and pop culture program, PLAY with A.J. As part of their humorous “30 Seconds of Fame” segment, I were asked, “The Huffington Post is reporting that there are three Lance Armstrong movies in the works…what should the movie be called?” My reply was: “One Ball, but What a Dick: The Lance Armstrong Story.” I wouldn’t normally dare to find a punch line in cancer, a horrific disease that is devoid of humor or prejudice. But Armstrong’s betrayal of his fans, family, his charity, his sport, allowed for my humour.
But the joke said more about the celebrity relationship of sports fandom than the failings of Armstrong. With The Armstrong Lie, Gibney is no different from the fans that cheered Barry Bonds to 73 home runs in 2001, golf’s apologists who continued to feed the Tiger Woods machine despite sordid tales of flawed character, or the NFL fans who continue to embrace Michael Vick despite his serving jail time for abusing dogs. Sports fandom allows for this obliviousness in a manner that Hollywood does not because of cultural familiarity. We’ve all ridden a bike, swung a bat, tossed a football, and yet so few of us have sung on stage, or acted, or written. We live vicariously through athletes because we don’t require a giant leap of faith to imagine ourselves in their Nikes. And so we excuse their faults because we so wish that their faults could be ours.
We know how the story ends, and The Armstrong Lie is well aware of that. The documentary’s post-script is unnecessary. Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles, dropped by his sponsors, and dismissed by his own cancer charity, Livestrong. If it was Gibney’s intention when editing his footage to include himself as a character through which the audience experiences the director’s flaws analogous to our own, then the film is a rousing success. If it was unintentional, then it fails as a documentary film, but not as a document. Either way, The Armstrong Lie is a riveting examination of both celebrity and those of us who feed it, and while it may not completely give us permission to laugh, it asks us to consider our relationship with those through whom we live vicariously.
Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The
Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among
others, and contributes to MTV’s PLAY
with AJ. He is the author of the poetry collection JACK (Snare
Books, 2008), the short story collection Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press,
2011), and the co-author of Cheap Throat: The Diary of a Locked-Out
Hockey Player (Found Press,
2013). His next poetry collection, Bourbon & Eventide, is forthcoming in 2014
from Invisible Publishing. Follow him on Twitter @mdspry.