Tuesday 12 December 2017

Another enormous con job

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Lance Armstrong being interviewed by Oprah Winfrey
Lance Armstrong being interviewed by Oprah Winfrey

Eamonn Sweeney

Back in 1983 a newspaper which had decided to serialise the Hitler Diaries learned that they were a hoax just before going to print. It was too late to remove such a large story so sub-editors tried to rescue the situation by inserting the fact that the diaries were false wherever possible in the copy. The result was that the paper ended up with things like, "Hitler scribbled for years in these diaries we now know to be false," and, "as Hitler said in his fake diary." Such are the perils of being taken in by con men.

This story came to mind last week as I watched The Armstrong Lie, a documentary by American director Alex Gibney currently in Irish cinemas. Gibney suffers from the same problem as the papers which published the Hitler Diaries; he was conned to such an extent that no amount of restructuring is going to make things look right. And the result is a piece of work which is fundamentally flawed, deeply unsatisfying for the viewer and in essence almost completely worthless.

The big problem is that Gibney didn't set out to make a documentary about Armstrong as a cheat. Despite all the questions which surrounded the rider, he set out to make a documentary about the Texan's return to the Tour de France in 2009, a kind of a 'triumph of the human spirit' job with Armstrong looking for one last day in the sun. During the film Armstrong would repeatedly deny the doping allegations and would be cast as the hero. The audience were supposed to root for him as he answered his critics with a final victory.

Then the truth intervened. Gibney was left with a hagiography about someone who nobody believed was a saint anymore on his hands. Bummer. He then decided to rework the movie so what we're left with is something like the initial 2009 documentary with a smaller documentary about the revelations bolted onto it.

The result of this jerry-building is an unwieldy creation in which the joins are all too apparent. Gibney would have been better off junking the original movie altogether. By not doing so he has produced something which feels compromised.

There have been a number of movie scenes I've found difficult to watch lately. The floggings in 12 Years a Slave, Jonah Hill spewing into Leonardo DiCaprio's face in The Wolf of Wall Street, heartless nuns giving the titular character the runaround in Philomena. But these were all a breeze compared to having to watch Lance Armstrong lie and lie and lie again on screen.

Many of these lies come from the 2009 documentary when Gibney seemed to find them utterly convincing, chuckling along at times with Armstrong as the Texan casts scorn on his enemies. Yet, in the light of what we all know now and what most of us suspected even then, these scenes seem entirely redundant. And so do all the scenes from the 2009 Tour where Armstrong is still presented in an utterly heroic light. Several minutes are expended on wondering whether he can do well enough on the climb to Mont Ventoux to achieve a place on the podium and answer his critics.

The 2009 tour footage is so spectacularly pointless because who, at this stage of the game, cares whether the most famous cheat in the world got on the podium or not? And it's rendered even more so by the fact that blood tests suggest he'd been doping on that tour as well. Gibney casts doubt on this suggestion. Why? Because Lance told him he hadn't been. The same Lance who's pictured innumerable times lying on camera throughout the movie. One journalist looks about to laugh in the director's face when he hears this theory of a changed Lance.

Anyone who's worked as a freelance knows that you can't afford to throw away work you've spent time on. Recycle and renose it and it will find a taker somewhere. And that's

what probably happened with The Armstrong Lie. Gibney found himself with all this footage of the 2009 race and, reluctant to waste it, threw it into a new movie where its presence was entirely inappropriate. So we get all this stuff about Lance's quest for redemption. In this section of the movie it's as though Armstrong's confession to Oprah Winfrey and the world never happened.

Much of the film looks like this. We have a lengthy sequence where Armstrong complains about the arrival of dope testers to his house, complaining that he's tested too often, that it takes up too much of his time, upsets his girlfriend and invades the privacy of his home. Given that he was at the time engaged in what the United States Anti-Doping Agency called 'perhaps the most sophisticated doping programme in the history of sport', the effrontery is extraordinary. Yet Gibney runs the sequence without comment. It is a scene from a movie where Armstrong is innocent, a great champion preyed on by the venal and the envious.

You could perhaps argue that by showing Armstrong insisting on his integrity at such length Gibney is merely giving the man enough rope to hang himself. But I don't think the movie supports such a reading. It's striking, for example, how little time is given to those who built the case against Lance. There are a few small snippets with David Walsh. Paul Kimmage only features in the famous scene where Armstrong attacks him from the top table at a press conference while more or less accusing him of insulting everyone who's ever had cancer. The two cyclists whose evidence really damned Armstrong don't appear either. We hear Lance damning Floyd Landis but Gibney doesn't talk to either Landis or Tyler Hamilton.

And it seems very odd that Gibney shows Armstrong making extremely damaging allegations against two of his critics, former Tour de France winner Greg LeMond and his former physio Emma O'Reilly, when neither of them appear in the documentary.

The one Lance sceptic who does feature prominently is Betsy Andreu, wife of Armstrong's former team-mate Frankie, who is the most impressive person in the film, a forthright, fearless woman who stuck to her story even when Armstrong and his cohorts sought to bully and humiliate her and her husband. She cuts to the chase when telling Gibney that when she heard about his 2009 movie, "We thought you were going to buy into the bullshit." It was a fear obviously shared by LeMond who, it's revealed, hired his own camera crew at that Tour to "make an anti-Gibney film".

It's a pity that film has never seen the light of day because it would probably have been better than Gibney's which still has a distinct flavour of the puff piece feared by the Andreus.

Gibney is a well-respected documentarist who won an Oscar for Taxi to the Dark Side, a 2007 film about the murder of an Afghan man by American soldiers. So how did he get this one so wrong? Perhaps it's because The Armstrong Lie gives the impression of having been made by someone whose delight in getting to hang out with a sporting hero has entirely blunted his critical faculties. Without any hint of irony, Gibney tells us that when Armstrong made his (almost certainly doping-fuelled) ascent of Mont Ventoux the film-maker was "just another fan," and shows us a picture of himself jubilantly waving a flag.

The Worshipful Nerd tone gets even worse when Armstrong tells Gibney "sorry for fucking up your documentary by not winning the race". It seems a light-hearted comment but Gibney tells us he believes Lance was genuinely sorry. To be honest, a person who thinks that a top-class sportsman suffering a major disappointment immediately worries about the inconvenience it's caused to someone covering the event probably wasn't a great choice to make a film about Lance Armstrong.

Similar levels of delusion are apparent when Gibney wonders aloud about why Armstrong would not just lie to him personally but continue to lie about his doping. This is presented as some kind of fascinating Dostoyevskyan moral dilemma but the truth is simple enough. Like the crooked stockbroker Jordan Belfort, the anti-hero of Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street, Armstrong cheated and lied because he wanted success and money and fame and knew that when he stopped lying all these things would go away. It's an old story. And an interesting one. Alex Gibney seems overmatched against Armstrong. Scorsese would have done a better job.

As it is, Armstrong basks in the glow of Gibney's regard and even seems to think that his bullying of those who sought to expose the truth reflects well on him. It's to do with him being "a fighter," apparently.

And what leaves a sour taste in the mouth is that Gibney doesn't challenge this viewpoint. His penultimate statement is that the "cruelty" Armstrong needed to become a winner explains his treatment of his detractors. But this is merely a prime example of what you might call the Asshole Fallacy, that to win in sport it helps to be a horrible human being. It's a pretty shameful statement from someone whose nation has produced the likes of Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan and Jack Nicklaus, men who were as dignified off the field as on it.

The film closes with Lance's statement that his seven Tour de France victories can't be taken away from him. But they have been. As David Walsh points out, in a world of doping, the man with the best doctor wins. And Armstrong had enough money to secure exclusive use of Michele Ferrari, the man who'd brought doping to a fine art. They were Ferrari's victories, not Armstrong's. And there's no point trying to excuse Armstrong on the grounds that he'd come back from cancer. My mother's beaten a life-threatening bout of the disease but I'd still, and this may be harsh of me, be disappointed to find her mainlining illegal drugs of an evening.

What makes Armstrong such a peculiarly repulsive character is not just that he cheated but that, despite being caught, he's still full of self-righteousness and self-pity. Jordan Belfort's saving grace was that he knew he was a blackguard. Armstrong, on the other hand, can't forgive the people who told the truth about him. He tells us he was ready to put on boxing gloves and go into the ring with David Walsh, he boasts about "being ready" for Paul Kimmage before the press conference, he complains that the United States Anti-Doping Agency didn't offer him a deal, he still seems to regard himself as a hero.

In reality, the heroes are David Walsh and Paul Kimmage who knew there was no mystery about the Armstrong lie. He lied to the world because he thought he'd get away with it. And he lied to Alex Gibney because he probably thought the man was an idiot. This movie will hardly change his opinion. It's a weird thing, full of the queasy fascination of some old documentary on the showbiz magic of Jimmy Savile interspersed with testimony from his victims.

The tragedy of it is that the downfall of Lance Armstrong, who cheated for so long and lied to so many, is one of the great sports stories, and that in movies bad often drives out good. Anyone looking to make a documentary on the subject now will probably be told that it's been done already.

But it hasn't. There is a great movie to be made yet, a kind of sporting Zero Dark Thirty. It won't have any input from Armstrong, who got to say his unchallenged piece for a decade and a half, but it will have plenty from Walsh and Kimmage and the Andreus and Travis Tygart of the United States Anti-Doping Agency and Greg LeMond and Tyler Hamilton and everyone who finally brought the curtain down on the whole sorry travesty.

Lance Armstrong is a cheat, a liar, a bully and, on the evidence of this documentary, a bit of a prick. So perhaps the shoddy, sentimental, crock of self-regarding shit which is The Armstrong Lie is a suitable monument for him after all.

They deserve each other.


Irish Independent

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