If you’re looking for a tragic hero in the classic mold, look no further than Lance Armstrong.
Astronomic rise, as in seven Tour de France victories in a row (after conquering cancer)? Click. Abject downfall, as in being exposed as a regular consumer of performance-enhancing drugs, banned from competitive sports for life, and stripped of all seven Tour de France trophies? Click.
And that’s all about a hero (or, as “Sports Illustrated” dubbed him, “Anti-Sportsman of the Year”) whose name is more Classic Comics than Sophocles. Not Bill or Bob, not Jack Armstrong, The All-American Boy (as in the old radio serial): Lance. As for Armstrong–that speaks for itself. (It wasn’t his original name.)
ßIn “The Armstrong Lie,” documentarian Alex Gibney (“Taxi to the Dark Side,” “We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks,” “Jimi Hendrix and the Blues,” and many others) relates the roller-coaster ride that has been Armstrong’s life so far.
Ironically, Gibney started out to make a film named “The Road Back,” about Armstrong’s comeback after his 2005 retirement. Gibney did wind up making a film about that, but also about the drug scandal that finally led to the hero’s downfall.
Armstrong comes from Plano, Texas, where he was born in 1971 and named–wait for it–Lance Edward Gunderson. At 16, he became a professional triathlete, and by 25 he had been named the world’s top-ranking cyclist. A year later, in 1996, Armstrong was diagnosed with metastasized testicular cancer and given a so-so chance of surviving. And a year after that, two surgeries and chemo behind him, he founded the Livestrong Foundation to aid cancer survivors. (Remember all those yellow rubber bracelets?) In 1999, Armstrong won his first Tour de France.
In 2005, after six more Tour de France victories (and two memoirs), Armstrong announced his retirement. Three years later he announced a comeback. That’s when Alex Gibney started making his documentary. The producer was Frank Marshall, the man behind “The Color Purple,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and the Bourne series, among many other prize-winning films. As a condition of making the film, Marshall insisted on getting access to Armstrong over a full year’s time.
“The Armstrong Lie” opens with Armstrong’s January, 2013 interview with Oprah Winfrey, in which he confesses to doping. The word, however, had gotten out months earlier, when Armstrong dropped his fight against the doping charges brought by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). It wasn’t the first accusation: for years, rumors of doping among the cyclists, including Armstrong, had circulated; but Armstrong (“cycling’s Superman,” as Winfrey puts it) had always dodged them.
The film then moves to interviews with former cycling colleagues and teammates, sports writers, editors, and Michele Ferrari, Armstrong’s longtime coach and the physician who supplied him with drugs.
And, of course, with Armstrong himself. The athlete comes off as likeable, boyish, witty, and very, very sincere. He looks like what we think an American athletic hero should look like: lean, tanned, casual in his demeanor, smiling. He’s competitive and aggressive, but he doesn’t appear mean. And he’s a masterful liar.
There’s extensive footage of the Tour de France (“the world’s most demanding sporting event”) as well as other races. Some of the footage is lovely–racers seen against a foreground of sunflowers or silhuetted against the sky. But rumors of doping were everywhere, even though the drug tests failed to come up with anything definitive.
How did Armstrong dodge the accusations for so long? Lots of ways. His coach, Ferrari, for instance, had sources inside Italian anti-doping labs. And as new tests were developed, new methods of doping kept right up with them. Still, it’s mysterious to viewers how the athletes got away with so much–because by the 1990s, it seems that everybody in the cycling world was doping. Armstrong was simply doing what all the rest were doing. And when, in 2009, Armstrong tried to win “clean,” he lost.
“The Armstrong Lie” tells this story in detail (it runs just over two hours). Unfortunately, the film’s editing is quite confusing. Director Alex Gibney interviews Armstrong and the others at various times, but the interviews are not shown chronologically. One race blends into another, and it’s easy to lose track of what’s happening when.
Despite that, though, “The Armstrong Lie” is both entertaining and instructive. As the mobs of fans crowd the racing routes, almost blocking the cyclists’ way, grabbing at Armstrong’s clothing like religious fanatics trying to snatch a scrap of a saint’s robe, we’re made aware of peoples’ yearnings for a hero.
They thought they had one in Lance Armstrong. That he betrayed them all is an American tragedy, and then some.