|79. THE ARMSTRONG LIE
||[Nov. 7th, 2013|11:03 pm]
dir. Alex Gibney, USA 2013.|
“I was caught in the middle of a fight between the myth makers, and the myth busters.”
There’s a cop directing traffic on the roads trafficked by the Tour de France, but as the camera pulls back, we see that he is not wearing pants, and is merely one of the many costumed spectators camped out upon the route. Like the organizations governing the sport itself, the notion of regulation is but another element of the overall narrative, subservient to the entire construct of professional athletics. As such, the competition does not begin and end with the race itself, or the training periods therein-- it never ends, and all the attendant publicity, investigations, and the lies that spin out of them, are all part of the game. There are human drives at work beyond those for money, power, and glory, and they are so encompassing that to some extent, we are all complicit in the Armstrong Lie.
This documentary, which repurposes footage originally captured for a feature focused on Armstrong’s 2008-9 return to the Tour, invites its viewers to suspend value judgments for at least two hours and take a look at both the larger context of the Lie, as well as the internals of Armstrong’s makeup and motivations. In the process, one comes to reevaluate the role of sports as a professionally constructed narrative that encompasses everyone involved on either side of the stands. Gibney’s outsider perspective as a newcomer to the sport allows the audience to discover its cultural aspects organically, no matter the level of initial familiarity.
As covered by On The Media in 2010, a Wall Street Journal study found that a typical 3-hour televised football game features about 11 minutes of actual play. As audiences, we are drawn to the surrounding drama of the game, and get to know its more esoteric details, so that we can recognize when something special happens. For at its core, the highlights of a typical competition can be reduced to fairly simple, unromantic statements-- “Guy hit a ball with a stick,” as Dan Rydell put it on “Sports Night”, comforting his boss Isaac Jaffe, who in 1955 had picked an inopportune time to visit the men’s room at the Polo Grounds, thereby missing “the shot heard ‘round the world” when Bobby Thorson hit the homer to clinch the pennant for the New York Giants against the hometown rival Brooklyn Dodgers.
Yet even with such reductions available, some narratives are too good to pass up, and speak for themselves, no matter how invested one might be in the sport. Armstrong’s recovery from testicular cancer to win several Tours is certainly one of those. The prevalence of doping among professional cyclists, especially when interpreted as a uniform practice, eventually became a more enticing narrative, as legends are often made to be torn down, and the handwritten cheers along the Tour route become baldfaced criticisms of Armstrong and the UCI. But the original story of the survivalist comeback had so many positive aspects, not the least of which was an optimistic outlook on cancer awareness, imbuing current patients with a concrete hope. And so the old adage of “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend” was adopted by everyone, including those who knew the true story. But there’s always a deeper, more humanistic story behind the legend.
The code of silence among those few, such as Armstrong’s teammates and trainers, as well as potentially the higher-ups in the Union Cycliste Internationale, the governing body for the sport, is a potent and unforgiving force that ultimately destroyed friendships and careers. And so Armstrong defended his reputation tooth and nail, even winning defamy lawsuits against those who were telling the truth about him. When he finally came clean, he did so in the most dramatically appropriate fashion, in an exclusive interview with Oprah Winfrey, another quintessential American success story, and an icon practically immune to controversy.
Even this confession, then, is part of the ongoing competition. To a newcomer, so many elements of the sport seem enormously contradictory. The spectators can move onto the route itself, even as riders are passing by, even though this would be unthinkable in a track and field event. An individual wins the Tour, yet is part of an overall team. One’s teammates can help out by letting one draft behind, or by determining the optimal pace for the current stage, and yet another teammate may be an adversary, aiming to win the title for himself. The movie presents Armstrong and his 2009 Astana teammate Alberto Contador as such rivals, heightening Armstrong’s motivations and raising the dramatic stakes for the comeback that would ultimately be his undoing.
Many interviewees here posit that had Armstrong not attempted such a high-profile career resurgence, the doping allegations would not have been pursued further. At the same time, they give the impression that Armstrong wanted to prove to himself that, at least once, he could win without the usual boost. We live in an age where competitors will deliberately make things harder on themselves to demonstrate that their skills transcend such limitations. Video gamers have especially adopted this practice, as evinced in the GTAIV crimeless challenge and the FINAL FANTASY X No Experience Points Challenge. But Armstrong was not anticipating that he would perform as poorly as he did in the initial stages that year-- coupled with the intense rivalry with Contador, the movie heavily hints that he gave in to doping once more in order to compete at the same level, despite him denies it even post-Oprah. (Contador would eventually be stripped of his subsequent 2010 win for doping.)
The movie also explores Armstrong’s consultations with Dr. Michele Ferrari, shown as the ultimate mechanic for the human body. The level of scientific minutia to which Dr. Ferrari plans a training regimen, including the doping intervals and doses, shows just how entrenched and developed the doping is in the sport. Ferrari’s “contributions” to the sport are well-known enough that he’s been sentenced for sporting fraud and banned from all professional athletics. Armstrong’s correspondence with Ferrari is presented candidly, in contrast to the extremely formal unannounced drug tests to which Armstrong is subjected by the World Anti-Doping Agency.
The tests take place in Armstrong’s home, as he grows increasingly chagrined with each administration occurring in smaller intervals. Even so, he is respectful of their intent-- the credibility of such tests rely upon their unpredictable occurrences, and in the presence of his children, he has no room to equivocate. Like with the child cancer patients he meets with as part of the Livestrong initiative, Armstrong is at his best, and perhaps his most honest, with his children. “Your job is to take blood,” observes one of his daughters after the umpteenth examination. “No, her [the administrator’s] job is to take blood. My job is to give blood,” corrects Armstrong. There’s something moving about how he never has to lie to a child the way he does to an adult, and it makes it all the more tragic that Livestrong is seen to be tarnished as well by his reputation. But it also gives him something to fight for in the neverending race, to redeem himself by restoring Livestrong’s genuinely uplifting qualities in which everyone can participate.
The cinematic elements of the piece are not particularly subtle-- almost every moment is accompanied by a very assertive musical score, and the headlines expositing the evolving state of the scandal are animated with heavy motion graphics. Yet the volume of material is what conveys the complexity of the layers to the story, and Gibney’s own narration grounds the piece as a personal experience, one in which Gibney himself wrestles with his role in the narrative. He initially aimed to be impartial, especially while being accused by other cycling teams of creative a puff piece for Armstrong, yet finds himself irresistibly rooting for the guy as he made significant advances in that fateful 2009 tour, even though he had more than suspicions as to what was really going on. Armstrong himself acknowledges Gibney’s needs a number of times in hotel room interviews along that Tour: “Sorry I f*cked up your movie,” he half-jokes, when it becomes clear that he won’t win despite a valiant, almost certainly dope-fueled rejuvenation.
Sports is the baseline metaphor for all other human endeavors and stories. This is why it strikes me as odd when sportswriters compare athletes to characters on “The Wire” or politicians-- the clear delineations and regimented flow of the game are what allow more complicated concepts to naturally map to it, not the other way around. But perhaps our collective investment in sports, as driven by our need to satisfy some bloodlust in a context less loaded than actual war, or to participate in the manufacture of phenomena, demands that we acknowledge the larger narrative in which we are all complicit. As the pattern of concussions in the NFL show, the players can pay a cost beyond even the fame and fortune they enjoy. Yet, there is a rigidity in our need for these cultures that resists pondering those larger costs-- “at what price glory” has ceased to be a rhetorical question. We are merely haggling now.