F.I.L.M. of the Week (March 26, 2015)

26 03 2015

The Armstrong LieDocumentarian Alex Gibney is not only one of the most prolific directors in his field; he is also one of its most incisive.  Gibney tends to gravitate towards two extremes in his choice of subjects, macro level exposés of corrupt institutions (Enron, the Catholic Church, the U.S. military) and portraiture of fallen men (Jack Abramoff, Eliot Spitzer).  Many of his documentaries contain elements of both, but none blend them better than his 2013 work “The Armstrong Lie.”

The film plays somewhat like an ESPN “30 for 30” documentary (a series to which Gibney has contributed) yet with a killer twist.  Gibney’s initial premise for a documentary on Lance Armstrong began as an adulatory one, filming his improbable comeback with a rosy lens.  Then, a few years later, the approach changed thanks to the shocking revelation of Armstrong’s duplicity and doping.

Gibney then sits back down with the footage and examines how Armstrong was able to hoodwink him and the rest of the world.  Remarkably, Armstrong himself sits down for another interview with Gibney to bare his soul, too.  These interrogations, along with other extensive investigative reporting, constitute “The Armstrong Lie,” one of the most fascinating confessional documents ever produced.  It is my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” because Gibney puts himself in the shoes of the average viewer to tell it, trying to comprehend how we all fell victim to his deception.

As it turns out, Armstrong is basically the sporting world’s incarnation of Jordan Belfort from “The Wolf of Wall Street.”  He cheated with performance-enhancing drugs since the beginning of his remarkable run of Tour de France victories and essentially brought about his own demise with a cocky “victory lap” in 2009.  The sport of cycling needed a celebrity figure to drive interest, so the authorities looked the other way and became complicit in his scheme because they wanted him to be real.  As Armstrong says in the film, “It pays to believe in winning at all costs.”

Lance Armstrong’s story ultimately becomes a sort of microcosm for society as a whole.  He is just the latest hubristic male leader for whom power does not beget responsibility to a higher standard but rather rapacious recklessness.  Armstrong’s actions never take into account the potential effect on cancer patients, cycling fanatics, or anyone at all who ever looked to him as a symbol of hope and perseverance.  “The Armstrong Lie” does feel somewhat incomplete because Gibney assembled it in the immediate wake of Armstrong’s admissions, although it could definitely lend itself to a sequel to see if Armstrong has actually learned a lesson.

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