The Who album “Who’s Next” was meant to be a concept album, called “Lifehouse,” the follow-up to “Tommy.” It was meant to resonate with Eastern mysticism and spirituality and was so ambitious it was meant to make Tommy seem like a kid’s musical. But Pete Townshend had a nervous breakdown once he realized he couldn’t explain the whole of the narrative in a song sequence. Rather than release a muddled and confused concept album, he ended up pulling the best songs into a single album. The result, “Who’s Next,” is considered by many rock critics to be one of the great rock albums of all time.
That seems a fair backdrop by which to introduce the Alex Gibney documentary, “The Armstrong Lie.” I’m not going to claim that this is one of the greatest documentaries ever committed to celluloid, but there can be no doubt that the result from his failed attempt to document Armstrong’s comeback makes a far more interesting film than what he had intended.
We live in an age where many documentarians editorialize; they manipulate the watcher to adopt the filmmaker’s viewpoint rather than allowing the viewer to draw his own conclusions. Michael Moore’s work is a great example of this. As much as I might agree with many of his positions, I’d rather not be subjected to an agenda. Present the info and if the dots are there, I’ll connect them for myself.
Early on, as Gibney was working on this film, it was often criticized as a puff piece. I heard those exact words used in conjunction with it; even Betsy Andreu uses those words in the film when being interviewed by Gibney. Reduced to its most contrasting elements, the film began as a celebration of Armstrong, then rounded on him in the wake of the USADA Reasoned Decision. Imagine a rock doc that captures a band at the height of their popularity, then checks back in with them four years later as they are breaking up. You see the elation that comes with adulation, and then you see the recrimination that comes with the broken spell. Oof.
When I walked out of the theater, I had a headache. I’d ridden such bumpy course of emotions I was exhausted. That’s the particular genius of this film. When I sat down, I vowed that I’d simply allow the film to tell its story and try not to impose my will on what I thought the story should be. “Let’s just see what story he tells,” I told myself. What happened was that I was taken back to each of those seven Tours, reminded of the adventure of watching those races play out. I was transported back in time to roads in the Alps and Pyrenees, to a bar in St. Jean de Maurienne where when Armstrong shot into the grass after Joseba Beloki crashed, a woman I knew screamed at the TV, “He’s cheating! He’s cheating!” and how I thought to myself, “You have no idea. You’re as right as you are wrong.”
There was the ache of injustice I felt for the Andreus every time they appeared on camera, the loathing I tasted for Stephanie McIlvain when her voicemail to Betsy Andreu was played, the schadenfreude that made me smile when Floyd Landis said, “At some point you gotta tell people Santa Claus isn’t real.”
In the interviews, I could still see Armstrong’s old charm, but I could also see the bully, the bluster. And yes, there were the lies. Enough of them to base a movie on. Gibney sought out archival footage in forgotten corners, stuff I’d never seen. Further, in addition to the Andreus, he interviewed Bicycling editor-at-large Bill Strickland, as well as former editor Steve Madden. He also interviewed Armstrong’s bete noir, David Walsh, as well as “The Secret Race” coauthor Daniel Coyle. He even got time with Michele Ferrari.
The film never tells you what to feel, what to decide, but it did lead me to a conclusion I’d not considered previously. While it’s easy to point to Floyd Landis as the catalyst for Armstrong’s downfall, I now think we’d elevated him to such heights, polished his story to such a chromed reflection that our American sensibilities simply wouldn’t permit us to leave him on a pedestal. Once the comeback was set in motion, so was his downfall. Had there been no Landis, there would still have been Jeff Novitzky and Tyler Hamilton. If there’d been no Hamilton, there’d still have been Levi Leipheimer. We were going to tear the Armstrong myth down, with prejudice. It’s just what this culture does. In that, Armstrong is that most American of myths. The key, I believe, isn’t that we can’t abide a hero, it’s that at some point we come to understand that any story so lofty, so heroic, must be built on some sort of lie. As much as we profess, as a culture, to want saints, deep down we know they don’t exist and we seem to delight in knocking them down to expose the lies. Armstrong himself observes, it’s not that he “lived a bunch of lies;” it’s that he “lived one big lie.”
Armstrong’s story will endure, not just in cycling, but in sport; he is the modern Icarus, and Gibney’s film is a clear-eyed account of both the rise and the fall. It makes me wonder, who’s next?