Alex Gibney wasn’t supposed to make The Armstrong Lie. The Oscar-winning documentarian set out to direct a movie celebrating Lance Armstrong’s effort to make a bike-racing comeback at the 2009 Tour de France.
Gibney did in fact complete that film. “It’s called The Road Back, and it was mostly a sports story,” says Gibney. The premise? “If Lance could race again and race clean, or at least convince everybody that he was racing clean, then he would put an end to all the doubts.”
That strategy of course backfired. Armstrong’s impressive third-place finish only re-kindled bitterness among former teammates. After seeing Armstrong on the podium, they started to talk about how their leader took banned substances and pressured them to do the same.
Gibney remembers, “At first we thought we might just change a few cards for the epilogue at the end of the film.” But as the Armstrong myth continued to deteriorate under the weight of government investigations, Gibney realized his original redemption theme had become obsolete. “My producers, Sony Classics, and I agreed that we needed to make a new film out of the bones of the old film plus a lot of new material.”
The Armstrong Lie, opening November 8 in limited release, includes fresh Armstrong interviews filmed after his televised confession to Oprah Winfrey, along with Tour de France footage, legal deposition archives, and appearances by longtime critics.
Armstrong’s fall from grace informs the latest case study in Gibney’s ongoing examination of American hubris. “I seem to be drawn to stories about abuse of power,” he says. Mea Culpa: Silence in the House of God targeted Catholic Church pedophilia. Casino Jack and the United States of Money profiled corrupt Washington D.C. lobbyists. Academy Award-winning Taxi to the Dark Side exposed Black Ops interrogations. And Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room drilled into Texas-sized business fraud.
Still, Gibney succumbed to the Armstrong hype. “Lance is a powerful, talented athlete and I became a fan,” he says. “When you become a fan, you lose that that third-eye perspective that looks in on what you’re doing and questions it. One thing that made me angry is when I realized I had been recruited, without me really understanding it, to be a part of the Lance Armstrong PR team.”
Gibney and his colleagues regrouped to begin work on a less adulatory portrait in late 2012 after Armstrong phoned Gibney to apologize. “Lance said ‘Look it’s true, I lied to you, I’m sorry.’ I did feel betrayed. I told Lance he owed me the opportunity to get him back on camera and set things straight. What filmmaker doesn’t want to know what really happened? For a brief period Lance suggested he would do his mea culpa in my film, but he did it on Oprah, so: another promise broken.”
Gibney’s documentary amply captures Armstrong’s ferocious competitive zeal as well as the ingenuity with which he duped doping investigators. But the film’s most riveting footage revisits Armstrong’s performances as a master prevaricator who deceived fans, sponsors, and supporters of his cancer-fighting Livestrong Foundation with utterly convincing claims of innocence.
Gibney notes, “His cancer work gave Lance what he felt was some kind of moral authority so that he could look people in the face and say ‘How dare you say that I, as a cancer survivor, would ever use performance-enhancing drugs?’ It’s like swearing on a bible or the life of your mother. As a result, a lot of people believed Lance.”
Earlier this year, Gibney’s We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks centered on an equally complicated public figure. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange denounced the film. Gibney says “Julian likes to make everyone part of his PR machine. ‘You’re either on his side, or you’re off his side.’ That’s a quote from Lance Armstrong, but it’s very similar to how Julian feels.”
Media-savvy documentary subjects like Armstrong and Assange pose a daunting challenge for non-fiction filmmakers, says Gibney. It boils down to the question of who controls the story. “This is the age of celebrity and more than ever, if famous people give you access, they want abject reverence in return.”
Following Armstrong as he trained, competed and massaged his message for a hero-hungry public, Gibney observed a shrewd marketing mind at work. “Lance almost never fluffed his lines. He became more and more like a politician and refers to his own story almost as if he’s a French literature professor: ‘We have two kinds of narrative here.'”
In making The Armstrong Lie, Gibney moved beyond his fanboy phase to craft a saga that’s even more fascinating than the fairytale peddled by its over-reaching subject. Gibney says, “You can just see Lance every step of the way burnishing the myth. It was very profitable for him. But that’s not about being honest, that’s not about truth telling, it’s not about getting the story right.”