Tuesday, January 28, 2014

'The Armstrong Lie' (2013) directed by Alex Gibney

So a guy cheats in a few bike races, what's the big deal?  I can't help but feel like there's some crucial part of the Lance Armstrong story that I'm overlooking, but after watching this documentary it seems like the very definition of a storm in a teacup.  Perhaps this is merely a matter of perspective; firstly I don't care about competitive bicycle racing and secondly you need only pick up a newspaper to read about people getting away with completely screwing over the world - crimes which make the misadventures of a disobedient cyclist pale into insignificance.

Obviously I'd heard of Lance Armstrong, but aside from him being a drugged off cyclist I was pretty much in the dark.  This feels like one of those times where I've missed the popular culture boat; everyone and their mother appears to have some kind of opinion on Lance Armstrong, usually that he's pretty much Dick Dastardly on a bike.  Anyway, he won the Tour De France a bunch of times (a bike race repeatedly and breathlessly described as "the most grueling athletic event in the world"), retired and then had a big comeback in 2009.  It's this comeback that the documentary focuses on, showing us a slightly wrinklier Armstrong who's not as good as cycling as he once was, desperate to show everyone that he's still the best around.  

This all fell apart when it turned out the reason he was such a good cyclist is because he was stuffing himself with drugs that make you into a good cyclist.  After publicly debasing himself for Oprah he was stripped of his athletic achievements, became a sports pariah and was roundly mocked, leaving only his hundreds of millions of dollars and vast mansions to get him through the night. 

This documentary is a bit of an odd duck, most of was made in 2009 prior to Armstrong's disgrace.  The project was put on hold following the controversy, but director Alex Gibney obviously paid attention when he was told "if life hands you lemons, make lemonade", and readjusted the focus of his film to being a history of doping in cycling, concentrating on the methods Lance Armstrong and others used during his cycling career.

I was expecting these illicit drugs to be along the lines of horse steroids with freaky side effects, so it's a little disappointing to learn that the primary doping agent, EPO, does little more than increase red blood cell count to facilitate oxygen transfer.  Even the cyclists themselves appear pretty blase about it, explaining that rather than transform you into a superhero it just makes you tired a little later than usual.  Slightly more interesting are the tales of mid-race blood transfusions.  The idea is that you train at high altitudes, causing your body to react the lower oxygen content and natural up your red blood cell count.  Then you siphon off this blood and transfuse it back in during a low altitude race, giving you a bit of extra pep.  This is nicely ghoulish, the idea of people surreptitiously carting around chilled blood to pop back into the riders is like something out of a vampire movie.

None of this is unique to Lance Armstrong though, and we quickly realise that damn near everyone involved in cycling was at it, with the governing bodies tacitly overlooking and advising cyclists when they're in danger of being caught.  The film does a bit of moralistic hectoring on why it's wrong to break the rules even if everyone else is doing it, but it's difficult not to see the cyclist's point of view.  

But though you can sort of understand why they felt no guilt about getting doped up, it's next to impossible to actually sympathise with the cyclists.  The entire sport is jampacked with complete arseholes with egos the size of a planet, the personality traits that make a top quality cyclist neatly aligning with those of a pushy prat.  Watch these grown men bitching about each other like a bunch of jealous schoolgirls feels utterly surreal: otherwise apparently intelligent people entirely emotionally consumed by cycling - cycling - for god's sake.  

Perhaps the reason I'm so dismissive about all this is that I don't give two shits about competitive sport.  Even so I do usually enjoy sports films, I loved Rush and Senna, both of which manage to elevate racing around in cars to zen mastery.  Even within the narrow genre of bicycle racing films I adore Breaking Away, a film that makes you want to hop on a bike right away and get sweaty. The best sports movies and documentaries use sport as a jumping off point to examine wider themes of passion and drive.  The Armstrong Lie sort of does that, but the baked in layer of paternalist moralising spoils even the simple joy of admiring Armstrong as a successful bastard, yet alone allowing me to enjoy cycling, an activity the film paints as mechanical, miserable and resolutely un-fun.

The Armstrong Lie does explore wider questions: how eager we are to impose fairytale narratives on celebrities, then reacting with disbelief and anger when reality fails to conform to the fiction we've devised.  Lance Armstrong became one of these heroes, happily adopting this narrative and allowing everyone (even himself) to believe in the big lie.  This total deception of public and self is fertile dramatic soil, Armstrong having the potential to be a tragic figure in a classically dramatic sense.  

Undermining all that is that Armstrong, though embodying the tragic hero, was a goddamn cyclist; an essentially meaningless profession that only a moron would truly care about.  And boy do we see hundreds of these morons.  The race spectators are a blur of pissed-up sunburnt flesh, an army of goobering boobs with flags painted on their beer bellies jumping in and out of the path of the cyclists, whooping away their last few brain cells as the clearly annoyed riders shoo them out of the way.  These are the people that bought into the Lance Armstrong fiction and to look at them you can't help but think they were in sore need of a dose of cold reality.  The moral of the story?  If your definition of a hero is someone being able to ride a bike pretty well then you deserve everything you get.

The Armstrong Lie is, at minimum, an interesting window into the murky world of professional cycling.  But crucially it never gets under Lance Armstrong's skin, settling for sternly waggling a finger in his direction and making sure we all know that he's a very naughty boy.


The Armstrong Lie is on general release from January 31st.

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