In the middle of the world championships in Florence, word went around the press room that a new cinema was opening in town that evening, and marking the occasion by showing The Armstrong Lie. Doors would open at 9.30pm.
It was 8.30. With some colleagues, I closed my laptop and made a hurried exit. The cinema was a brisk 30-minute walk. A large crowd of people clustered around the entrance; in Italy, this is known as a queue. We joined in, shuffled towards the door, and found some seats — just in time for the speeches.
Finally the film began and for two hours we sat spellbound. When it finished we remained as though pressed into our seats. Then we went for a late pizza, and for another two hours pored over the details:
‘That bit where Armstrong is looking out the hotel window at Contador giving a press conference!’
‘What about the footage of Bruyneel in the car when Contador attacks?’
‘Can’t believe how much those drug-testers looked just like … drug-testers.’
‘But Dr Ferrari seemed so… benign.’
‘And what about the discussion in early 2009: Armstrong, Bruyneel and Bill Stapleton chatting about the doping question as if it was a … game.’
And so it went on. There was so much to discuss; so much intrigue and fascination. And yet, there was something gnawing away at me. I enjoyed the film. But I didn’t feel entirely satisfied.
I think the problem was that The Armstrong Lie is not one film, but two. It reminded me of two sheets of tracing paper with very different drawings, one laid on top of the other. You can just about make out each drawing, but find yourself distracted by details that intrude on the one you’re looking at, because they belong to the other one.
It was never supposed to be a film about deception. It was supposed to be about a great sporting comeback: Lance Armstrong’s in 2009. Director Alex Gibney was on that year’s Tour, when Armstrong and Alberto Contador were teammates-come-rivals at Astana. Gibney, who narrates this film, mentions that he was not naive to the doping allegations that had surrounded Armstrong, but he was more interested in whether or not he was clean in 2009, as he made his return and bid for an eighth Tour win.
But the original film, the Armstrong comeback story, was shelved when the doping allegations re-surfaced, and finally ended in Armstrong being charged and stripped of his titles in October 2012.
At this point Gibney returned to the story and his footage from 2009. He has used this material as the basis for the new film, but overlaid it with interviews, including a new one with Armstrong in which he talks about his ‘one big lie,’ in much the same way as he did to Oprah in his confessional interview in January.
Really it is this, Armstrong in his own words, with lots of close-ups, that forms the centrepiece of the film. It is almost as though Armstrong is narrating his own story — almost, but not quite.
The film is no longer about Armstrong’s comeback, even though it is the footage of this that provides the sporting action. But this creates a problem, because in 2009 Armstrong was diminished; so while the film is trying hard to paint a picture of a ruthless champion who crushed people on and off the bike, the pictures show a rider who is suffering and ultimately defeated.
Still, the footage is used to illustrate aspects of Armstrong’s character: his hatred of losing and determination to win; his abrasive personality, his arrogance, his charisma. Contador proves a useful foil, though there is little of him in the film.
It is almost but not quite Armstrong’s story — or his version of it — because Gibney will not allow that. Tellingly, Armstrong offers a teaser at the start: ‘This story’s all over the place and there are these … complete opposite narratives. The only person who can let people understand what the true narrative is, is me.’
Gibney mentions that at times while making his original film, Armstrong tried to control the narrative. Well, of course he did. But so determined is the director to deny Armstrong control — or so fearful is he of allowing himself to be manipulated — that his narration can at times seem a little too moralising, even sanctimonious.
The testimony of people like Betsy and Frankie Andreu and Jonathan Vaughters is necessary to counter Armstrong (the LeMonds, Greg and Kathy, would have added more, but apparently refused to take part). I wasn’t so sure about the contributions by some of the other talking heads, people like Daniel Coyle and Bill Strickland. They tell us about Armstrong, interpreting his actions and guessing his motives — telling us what we should think of him — when the real fascination is in watching and listening to Armstrong with your own eyes and ears; deciphering him for yourself.
I think this film was made too soon. It couldn’t be the story of his comeback, because that would have been seen as glossing over his cheating.
And yet for me the best and most revealing parts of the film, by a long, long way, were those that focused on the 2009 race and his power struggle with Contador. A little like Daniel Coyle’s book, Tour de Force (called Lance Armstrong’s War in the US), this material allowed us to see how Armstrong operates, what makes him tick, how he is; it is observational rather than driven by an agenda, trusting the reader or viewer to make up their own mind.
There were moments in the film that confounded and challenged preconceptions: Armstrong as doting dad as well as doping cyclist; an at-home interview with Dr Michele Ferrari, where he comes across as cheerful, engaging and intelligent. Not to overlook their nefarious deeds, but people are usually more complex, and more interesting, than their caricature.
You wonder what footage from the 2009 Tour remains lying in some cupboard in Hollywood, or on a memory card, if that’s how it is stored these days. One scene that does make it into the film shows Bruyneel driving alongside Bjarne Riis and discussing Bradley Wiggins. Riis had the Schleck brothers aiming for the podium, Bruyneel had Contador and Armstrong, but Gibney tells us that Bruyneel and Armstrong most feared Wiggins because they knew so little about him.
‘You wanna get rid of Wiggins?’ Bruyneel asks. Riis nods: the ice man cracks an evil grin. ‘So do we,’ says Bruyneel.
I wanted more of that. And more of Armstrong and Contador — the tension in the hotel and on the bus, the awkward team dinners, the day Contador was allegedly abandoned in Annecy. Gibney couldn’t tell too much of this story because it would have detracted from the story he had to tell.
In the end The Armstrong Lie only reinforced the idea that ‘dealing’ with Armstrong was never going to be as simple as scratching his name from the official records, as though he never existed. That isn’t the way life or sport works. The 1988 Olympic 100m final remains burned in the memory despite (perhaps even because) the winner was later revealed to be a drugs cheat. (Last year I wrote a book about it, The Dirtiest Race in History, which painted a fairly sympathetic, or at least more than one-dimensional, picture of the ‘winner,’ Ben Johnson. Right now, it wouldn’t be possible to give Armstrong similar treatment. But in twenty years, who knows?)
The point is that those Tours did happen. Armstrong was there. You couldn’t fail to notice him, and it is equally impossible to forget him. And there he is in The Armsrong Lie, contrite (to a point), looking a little older (the grey hairs are proliferating), but ultimately defiant. In other words, ultimately Armstrong. At the end he tells us that he still considers himself the winner of those seven Tours. If he didn’t win, he says, who did?
Good question. And it’s an unresolved, perhaps unresolvable, one. Armstrong’s name is never going to be restored to the official records, just as Ben Johnson is never going to get his gold medal back. But I think that when the Lance Armstrong story is told in 20 years, it might be told differently, because it can be told differently.