Look Him in The Eye: The Problem with Filming the Story of Lance Armstrong

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“It’s cliché—he looked me in the eyes and told me he didn’t dope. But when he does that, he has a power.”
– Bill Strickland, The Armstrong Lie

When I first read the news that Lance Armstrong had been stripped of his seven Tour de France titles, I was shocked. I was not a cycling fan—before London 2012 I would not have been able to name another professional cyclist and I certainly had never watched the Tour. But still, it was shocking.

My dad came into my room and said “Have you seen about Lance Armstrong?” “I can’t believe it.” I replied. “But it’s meaningless; they don’t have any evidence.”

I may have been late to the party, but even I played a part in the Armstrong lie.

***

Throughout The Program, Stephen Frears’ film about the Lance Armstrong doping scandal, references are made to a Hollywood biopic about Armstrong currently in production. Is it going to be Matt Damon or Jake Gyllenhaal? Can he ride a bike? Can he take drugs?

But there’s no need to ask what the storyline of the film will be; by this point in Armstrong’s life (and indeed the movie), the legend has already been written. Top cyclist recovers from life-threatening cancer, returns to the most grueling sporting event in the world, and wins. Not just once, but over and over. He marries a beautiful woman and they mix with celebrities and world leaders. His charity work saves countless lives.

It’s the perfect story, although the film was never made. Perhaps Hollywood feared it would be too neat, too tidy—a bit too good to be true. Or maybe they were put off by the other side of his character: the doping allegations that followed Armstrong throughout his career. Allegations he aggressively and strenuously denied, but which persisted nonetheless.

No matter, though, because Armstrong’s was a myth that did not need a Hollywood movie to sustain it. It lived on in the hearts and minds of millions; if his story was perhaps too conventional for film, it was perfect for the real world. As Alex Gibney puts it, in his 2013 documentary The Armstrong Lie, often people “love the beautiful lie more than the ugly truth.”

The Program, then, came at the right time to face that “ugly truth” head on: Armstrong had confessed and had been vilified by the same press that once loved him. The history books had been rewritten. Still, The Program doesn’t have the strength of these convictions: rather than fighting with the complexities of the lie, it merely replaces one perfect hero with another.

The movie is based on a non-fiction book by David Walsh, a journalist at the heart of the Lance Armstrong story, however you choose to tell it. Walsh continued to pursue leads, writing about Armstrong’s doping even when others acquiesced, and eventually worked with the very people who would bring him down.

It’s not that Walsh’s story is uninteresting or irrelevant, but rather that the story still pivots on a mythical, fantastical figure. Not “the athlete who came back from the brink of death” but instead “the ethical journalist fighting for the truth in a hostile world.” In The Program, Walsh is on a one-man crusade, fighting editors to get stories published and railing against the injustices he sees all around him. As such, he sits comfortably (and conventionally) alongside countless cinematic journalists (Spotlight, All The President’s Men, Good Night and Good Luck). He even gets his obligatory newsroom monologue, wherein he tells us exactly how to feel about Armstrong:

“Is it because Lance Armstrong, handsome young cancer survivor, the inspirer of millions, cannot possibly be a cheat, because that would reveal the world to be a great pile of shit?” 

This hints at, but barely scratches the surface of, what is truly interesting about the Lance Armstrong saga. It’s not really about the doping, or the lie; it’s about how easily we can be fooled by a good story. And to really get to the heart of it, the viewer has to become complicit in the myth-making.

Because it has to construct its own satisfying narrative, and because it is insistent on following the most workmanlike tropes of the biopic genre, The Program is unable to truly interrogate these issues. It tries to take both an internal view of Armstrong’s motivations (mostly conveyed with shots of Lance looking broodingly into a lake) and an exterior one, through the perspective of Walsh. But either way, we the viewers are in on the “truth”: the movie relies on our knowledge of the real story to absolve us of our own role and comforts us that, next time, we’ll see through the act.

***

“I know. It fucked up your documentary.”
– Lance Armstrong, The Armstrong Lie

Gibney began following Armstrong during his 2009 comeback to the Tour. According to Lance, he came out of retirement to raise awareness and money for Livestrong—the non-profit organization he founded to support those affected by cancer—but it also marked the beginning of the end for his decades-long charade. His return was met with adoration and enthusiasm by the organizers of the Tour, which in turn infuriated many of his detractors—most significantly Floyd Landis, a former teammate who had been stripped of his own Tour de France title for doping, and had also returned, but to no such fanfare. His testimony, and the involvement of the federal government in investigating the alleged offences, shifted the balance of power and ultimately cost Armstrong his seven titles (and a reported $75 million) in a single day.

The Armstrong Lie keeps us at the heart of this comeback Tour. Unlike The Program, which struggles under the sheer weight of the seven races it has to pay lip service to, Gibney’s documentary centers us in a crucial time and place from which all other storytelling extends. The races are visceral and pacy; we are placed right in the middle of the action, with cameras mounted in the cars right behind the peloton listening in on the trainers, and shots of skidding tires and screaming fans.

Contrast this with The Program, which splices actual contemporary footage of Armstrong’s riding into the film, but struggles to inject drama into the races because Armstrong’s winning is always simply a given. Gibney, however, is able to imbue his footage with real suspense. In these moments, I find myself wanting to know if Armstrong is going to beat his new young rival—and Gibney is right there with me: “Looking back on that moment now, I admit I was caught up.”

The documentary has another advantage over the biopic: the talking heads. Gibney is the master of weaving the best quotes from the most important people into one, coherent narrative. The Armstrong Lie is able to balance the contrasting voices of teammates and journalists, of Armstrong and Gibney, with complete precision. The Program, on the other hand, has no time to build out any characters other than Armstrong, Walsh, and Landis. Everyone else is a sketch, either cartoonish or irrelevant.

The Program is caught between trying to tell the story from a specific perspective (Walsh’s) and the constraints of the biopic’s generic conventions. It wants to tell the whole story, but also has Lance off-center—not quite the main character, not quite the villain. The Armstrong Lie takes a more specific approach: With the gonzo journalist at its center—and a cacophony of voices in its orbit—the documentary is able to bring many more strands of the story into play. And key to its success is the man himself, looking the camera right in the eye.

***

“The only person who can actually start to help people understand the true narrative is me.”
– Lance Armstrong, The Armstrong Lie

So are these differences inherent to the forms the movies take? Or is it simply a case of execution? It is not true that biopics are inherently conservative in their approach to storytelling—for one thing, the performance of a leading actor should instill the film with a point of view, and Ben Foster is in many ways perfectly cast. There are moments in The Program where his profile is so eerily similar to Armstrong’s that you forget they are not the same man. Much was made in the press about Foster’s claims that he took performance enhancing drugs as part of his preparation for the role, and he certainly carries himself with the tightly wound posture and aggressive energy of a drug user.

The main problem is that what biopics profess to give us—unfettered, personal access to a well-known individual—is complicated in Armstrong’s case by the fact that he is simultaneously a ubiquitous public figure and a notorious liar. This should be a bonus for the narrative film. It has no obligation to recreate real life so much as to represent it: there is no need for any moment to be true in a documentary sense of the word, so long as it makes sense within the internal logic and structure of the movie.

The problem is that the filmmakers clearly did not trust Armstrong’s own accounts of his feelings and motivations (perhaps unsurprisingly, given the magnitude of his lies over the years) but were also seemingly unwilling to give him any other specific persona in the movie. Unable to faithfully recreate the real person because of his duplicity, but given little additional perspective from the script or direction, Foster is largely relegated to looking slightly angry and occasionally bursting into laughter.

The fact that the documentary is more successful than the biopic has less to do with the forms they take and more to do with the nature of this specific story. When recounting a historical event, you always have to balance the biases and perspectives of different people and institutions: that is the very nature of history-making. But Armstrong’s story is not an event, his story is a lie. And what both films are left trying to grapple with is that there is no empirical truth to be found. When you have no one to trust, on what foundations can you build your version of events?

Why did he dope? Why did he bully? Why did he come back in 2009? Whether we watch Ben Foster fill in the gaps or have Armstrong himself tell us to our face, we will never know the full truth. Both movies are merely left with the blank stare of Lance Armstrong to sustain them. He is a void at the heart of the story. Frears fills that gap with David Walsh, the beleaguered man who knew the truth, and can act as an audience surrogate for how we look at Armstrong in hindsight. But Gibney fills it with himself, conflicted and unsure—which is probably the only way to feel about a lie this big.

***

“Afterwards we don’t blame ourselves for being fooled, we blame him for having deceived us.”
– John Hodge, screenwriter of The Program

What the Lance Armstrong story teaches us (if it teaches us anything, which it probably doesn’t) is that all easy narratives are a type of lie. The story in which Armstrong is a hero is a lie, as is the story in which he’s the villain. There is no one reason “why,” there are too many culprits to name and too many factors to balance. Not even Armstrong himself has the answers.

The best Lance Armstrong film was never released in cinemas. You can’t find it on DVD. It wasn’t directed by Stephen Frears or Alex Gibney. In fact, you won’t even find the director’s name on IMDb (I checked). It aired on Jan. 17, 2013, and was hosted by Oprah Winfrey.

This was the “film” that started my obsession with this story: I watched it on YouTube, shortly after it aired. I was 20. I hadn’t taken up cycling or become any more knowledgeable on the subject, but I had an essay to write, and I was nothing if not extensive in my sources of procrastination.

Now, I can speak with some eloquence about the Lance Armstrong story: I can talk about pelotons and domestiques and the climb at Ventoux like I know what I’m talking about. But back then I was still new to all of this and Oprah was the first time I really heard him speak at length on the subject. It was also the first time I found myself wondering: is he still lying?

What did his story give me that made me ignore the obvious and believe in the impossible? And what do I want from him now?

No frills. Few cuts. Just the chance to look him in the eye.

***

“The gift of his that gets overlooked is his gift as a storyteller… a manager of his own storyline.”
– Bill Strickland, The Armstrong Lie

The Oprah interview is included prominently in both films—it ends The Program and begins The Armstrong Lie. For Gibney, it gives him an opportunity to re-enter the story and get some crucial face-to-face time with the new Lance for his own film. For Frears, it is the denouement, the fall from grace: Walsh has won and the story is over. In both films, it marks the end of an era—of corruption and doping and fame—that Lance will always exemplify.

The importance of Oprah in this story cannot be overstated: here was a man who had bitterly maintained his innocence for years finally admitting his guilt. It should have been a mea culpa, a resurrection, but both films leave the “truth” of this new narrative uncertain. “Was the comeback a new lie to replace the old one?” asks Gibney. “I think, as a fan, I won those Tours” is the final quote of The Program, attributed to Armstrong himself.

It is not the job of cinema to teach us lessons, to find an ending in the unending or make truth of the unknown: no film can or should make a definitive statement about any historical figure. But Lance Armstrong is not the story here, we are. The Armstrong Lie succeeds because, regardless of how you felt about Armstrong before you started watching, you are complicit in his lie by the end. We care and believe, right along with Gibney. And from that perspective, we can find meaning in what is ultimately unknowable: that all of us are more susceptible to a good story than we would like to think.

Still, even this experience is no substitute for the real thing. Frears pulls us back from him, Gibney takes us closer. But in this case, I’d actually recommend a less cinematic experience: sit yourself down in front of your screen, look up the Oprah interview, and meet Armstrong’s gaze head on. Be fooled and be skeptical; stop wondering how he got away with it for so long, but instead why we let him.