As is well known by now, the way that Lance Armstrong managed to ‘win’ his 7 Tour de France titles was with the aid of a huge amount of doping. As is also fairly well known, he got away with it for so long because of a combination of an overriding will to believe on the part of fans, journalists and sponsors with some pretty serious bullying and intimidatory tactics on the part of Armstrong himself and his entourage.
In 2009, though, Armstrong still had all his TdF titles, and his legend was still just about intact. He had decided to come out of retirement and attempt to win the Tour again, and filmmaker Alex Gibney was invited to make a documentary of that season and the Tour in particular, with the working title ‘The Road Back’. That documentary was all but finished when Armstrong’s downfall scotched plans to release it. So what they’ve done is re-used a lot of the footage from it, cut together with more recent interviews with Armstrong himself and other talking heads from the world of cycling.
First I'm going to say what I liked about the film:
- Some of the behind-the-scenes footage of Armstrong training and racing in 2009, particularly the interactions between him, Johan Bruyneel and Alberto Contador. Even though we now know that Contador was (is?) also a doper, you can't help but like him for metaphorically sticking two fingers up to the pair of them and riding off they way he does.
- Betsy Andreu. She is the wife of one of Armstrong's former teammates, who ends up going public with evidence she has against him and getting a huge amount of grief as a result (including being sued, as Mark mentions). She is one of the talking heads in the documentary. There is a moment where Gibney says that her husband Frankie "decided to stop doping" – he neglects to mention that it was basically because Betsty issued him with an ultimatum (or so I heard David Walsh say in an interview).
- The interviews with Michele Ferrari, the doping doctor par excellence. This is another scumbag that you can't help but like a bit because he's so charming!
- The footage of a 16-year-old Armstrong being interviewed after a triathlon and saying "I just lurve beatin' people, man!" (Incidentally, wasn't it interesting how his accent became less and less Texan over the years?)
But there are serious limitations. Firstly, if you’re a road cycling fan, or for some other reason have been following the Lance Armstrong blowup over the last three years since Floyd Landis spilled the beans, then this film won’t really add anything to your understanding. Also, if you watched the 2009 Tour de France the first time around, you won’t appreciate so much of the film being dedicated to Gibney telling us in voiceover about how the race panned out on the road.
Secondly, I agree with Deborah Ross that Gibney goes far too easy on Armstrong, even in the post-confession stage. My brother, who is not particularly a cycling fan, liked the film a lot more than me, saying that it was a ‘classic Greek tragedy’ and wondering aloud whether or not Lance Armstrong was clean throughout his 2009 comeback (as he still maintains). For me, Armstrong does not have the redeeming qualities of a tragic hero, and so if he comes across like that in the film it can only mean that the filmmaker has been played. (And no, I don’t for one second believe that he was clean in 2009!)
In a segment of the post-confession interview with which the film opens, Armstrong says ‘we haven’t heard [the full story] yet’. The thing is, after watching this film, we still haven’t, not by a long shot.