British Universities Film & Video Council

moving image and sound, knowledge and access

The Armstrong Lie

The Armstrong Lie. 2014. GB. Blu-Ray / DVD / Ultraviolet. Sony. 119 minutes + extras. £ 7.99 (DVD); £ 10.99 (Blu-ray).

MetykovaAbout the reviewer: Before taking up the position at the University of Sussex, Monika worked as a lecturer at Northumbria University in Newcastle. She also held research positions at the University of Sunderland and Goldsmiths, University of London. Monika works as a lecturer at the School of Media, Film and Music. She teaches on the MA Multimedia Journalism, MA Journalism & Media Studies and MA Journalism & Documentary Practice. Recent publications include: The interests of citizens and consumers: the case of media and advertising. In: Wharton, Chris (ed.) Advertising as culture. Cultural and media studies (2012) . Intellect, Bristol. ISBN 9781841506142; A Gypsy in Klenovec (in Code Unknown: Roma/Gypsy Montage). City, 14 (6). (2010) pp. 658-660. ISSN 1360-4813; Moores, Shaun and Metykova, Monika ‘I didn’t realize how attached I am’: On the environmental experiences of trans-European migrants. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 13 (2). (2010) pp. 171-189. ISSN 1367-5494

‘I can’t stand losing’

A lot of things can go wrong when making a film and all of us have heard countless stories of hardship from colleagues as well as students. There are projects that have been successfully turned around at the face of a calamity of epic proportions – Terry Gilliam managed to make an award-winning documentary (Lost in La Mancha, 2002) about a film that never materialized. Alex Gibney, the Oscar winning documentary film maker (Taxi to the Dark Side, 2007) also avoided a failure. Or maybe two. He escaped Lance Armstrong’s charismatic lure and – much to his own relief – did not join those perpetuating the cycling super hero myth. He also managed to turn an abandoned film about Lance Armstrong’s 2009 Tour de France comeback into an intelligent, self-reflective portrait of a liar and his film-maker.

Armstrong retired from cycling in 2005, having won his seventh consecutive Tour de France. Four years later he decided to race again and invited Gibney to film what he expected to be a triumphant return. Gibney was apparently intrigued by digging into the reasons for his comeback. Some, however, speculate that he suspected the Armstrong bubble may burst and wanted to be there when it happened. Armstrong came third in the Tour de France and the documentary was shelved. There were, however, a series of investigations into Armstrong’s alleged doping following his comeback, in 2012 he was formally charged by the US Anti-Doping Agency and was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and banned for life. In 2013 he confessed to doping on the Oprah Winfrey show. It was after the Winfrey interview that Gibney managed to film his and make it a central part of the film.

The facts of Armstrong’s downfall are well known, however, to watch him lying again and again for two hours is a gripping and emotional experience. Armstrong’s arrogance, manipulations and the viciousness with which he attacked his critics are all there against a backdrop of spectacular countryside, cheering crowds and supporters of his charitable work (his foundation raised over 300 million US dollars to support cancer sufferers). Interviews with his team mates, writers on cycling, sports commentators and the “dark figure of cycling” Michele Ferrari provide more details about the doping operation that was run with the precision of Swiss clockwork. Ferrari’s role in Armstrong’s team is described concisely in the film – “if the body is a biological machine, Ferrari was a mechanic”.

Armstrong was born in Texas, his mother raised him on her own. He did sports from a young age but his promising road racing cycling career came to a halt when – at the age of 25 – he was diagnosed with testicular cancer that spread all the way to his brain. He was given less than a 40 percent chance of survival. Getting well cost most of the money he made and he had difficulty getting a sponsorship deal, “he was washed up goods”. Three years after his diagnosis he won the Tour de France for the first time.  He launched his foundation in 1996 and there was no end to his success – sporting victories, sponsorship deals, powerful admirers, a rock star girlfriend – he managed to turn his life around in a spectacular manner. For years there have been allegations that the hero was cheating but “many wanted to believe”.

Gibney says that his film is not about doping but about power. For those of us who study and teach media, the film is an important reminder of the power of myths and the role of media in their perpetuation. Armstrong managed his story and its media representations masterfully and with a forceful hand (the film shows examples of how he treated his critics working in the media). Why did it take so long to charge Armstrong? The film discusses some evident reasons but importantly it suggests how difficult it is to resist myths – even for such an experienced investigative film-maker as Alex Gibney whose reflections on his own susceptibility to the hero myth are worth watching out for.

Monika Metykova

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