Well, I finally broke down and rented “The Armstrong Lie.” I’d been waiting for an opportunity to watch the documentary about the unparalleled collapse of probably the single sporting hero I admired above all others. But instead of watching the film surrounded by friends, I just plugged it into the old DVD player after the kids had gone to bed and worked my way through it alone. The DVD copy itself was the only one on the shelf, and my thoughts are that this is simply a story that people really don’t want to acknowledge. Sure there is plenty of debate and anger going on out there regarding Lance Armstrong...but there are so many contradictions on every level that most people seem to want to dig no further than their first superficial emotional reaction.
My superficial emotional reaction? Sadness.
The film starts out with some highlights from Lance’s wins, and man...there’s a hearty hollow echo of nostalgia for each and every one because I remember when they happened live and I remember how I thrilled to watch them then. There’s the moment when Lance dropped Pantani on L’Alpe d’Huez, and the moment when the spectator got too close and slammed Lance to the ground when his handlebars caught her handbag strap, and the moment when Joseba Beloki crashed in front of Armstrong leaving Armstrong with no other choice than to go offroad down the side of a mountain. It was strange watching those moments again in the context of seeing Lance as a cheat.
Then they showed some scenes of Lance with his head shaved struggling to push out a couple miles on his bike, and I couldn’t help but remember what a blow it was when we learned he had cancer.
But let’s be clear, this isn’t a pro Armstrong film. It’s called “The Armstrong Lie” and the fundamental theme of the movie is how Armstrong cheated. The driving force of the film as it was originally conceived was to document Armstrong’s return to racing in the 2009 Tour de France. To this day, Armstrong insists that he did that race clean, although the film documents how a spike in his red blood cell count has been taken as an indication of an illegal blood transfusion (Armstrong’s explanation is that the blood sample in question was taken immediately after the Ventoux stage when he was “dehydrated” and it wasn’t...blah, blah, blah—sorry, but you can’t trust anything he says).
In terms of the doping, lying, bullying, this film doesn’t show you anything new. However, there is a reason to watch it, and that reason is the footage that was shot of Armstrong during non-racing moments in the 2009 tour. We’ve all seen Armstrong charging to the finish in pursuit of a stage victory, but we’ve never seen him in the recuperation moments after stages that have gone well or—in the case of the 2009 tour—poorly. The truth is that Armstrong has such a well-polished public persona, that it’s rare that you get a glimpse of the actual man. He’s always “on,” always demonstrating a refined image that is very much under his control. I think one of the things about Armstrong that made him easy to portray as a villain is that we don’t know who he is. What we’re allowed to see is always coldly calculated. That was especially apparent during the infamous Oprah interview when he seemed to be able to work up some tears or drop his boyish smile on cue. But in “The Armstrong Lie” there are moments filmed in hotels between stages where you see a different, and I think, more honest side of the man.
Armstrong reflects on the 2009 tour candidly at one point and says he doesn’t know if he wasn’t more dominant because he was older, or because he wasn’t doping, or for some other reason. I found it interesting that he listed age before his lack of doping (although, again, there is debate over whether he doped in 2009). In that tour, Armstrong found himself in a battle with his own teammate Alberto Contador which continues throughout the race in absurd ways even though Contador early on proves himself to be the better rider. For example, there is a moment in the tour where Johan Bruyneel tells Contador not to work in a breakaway because he doesn’t want an accelerated pace that might risk pushing Armstrong off the podium. Contador responds by attacking, and Bruyneel is left slamming his headset against the dashboard of his support car.
Really, Contador was in the right. It’s stupid to risk the overall classification of the Tour so a weaker teammate can get on the podium. But that’s the Armstrong effect, the guy makes the regular rules irrelevant. Armstrong even defends some unconventional tactics at one point by saying, “we’re doing it that way because I’ve won the Tour 7 times!”
But there are a lot of moments in that 2009 tour that clearly demonstrate the party is over. At one point, Armstrong is sitting on a hotel bed watching the results of the initial prologue. He’d briefly been in first place, but one by one his rivals post better times. It’s compelling to watch Armstrong sit there and seethe as he sees his result bettered. He doesn’t do, or say anything, but I think in that moment you understand Armstrong and there’s something in the anguish he feels that isn’t wholly despicable. He looks like a very frustrated ten year old boy who is resolved to not allow his pain continue no matter what the consequences are. It’s like a silent temper tantrum with all the emotion of a child and none of the rational maturity of a reasoning adult. How is it that a guy like Armstrong who had accomplished so much at that point still could get worked up into such an unpleasant emotional place? It seemed like nothing in his life had taken the edge off, and yes, this is a person who is compelled by something to put his own personal health at great risk just for the fleeting joy of having the best time in a bike race?
As the race develops and Contador pulls away, Armstrong admits he feels “tension” for the Spaniard (the Spaniard claims the feeling is not mutual, but he pressures Armstrong on the course every chance he gets). The only moment that Armstrong looks like he finds a bit of peace is when he accepts his chances of winning are gone, yet he manages to “win” a place on the podium (again, maybe with the help of a blood transfusion).
At the end of the film, I didn’t feel anger against Armstrong, but sadness. This is a guy with an emotional hunger that will never be filled. I really wish the film, or the media in general, would start discussing what the long term effects of Armstrong’s doping are. Did this guy willingly sentence himself to an early grave for his fleeting glory?
Or who knows? Maybe he just wants to be paid attention to? Maybe he’s grateful for this scandal because it’s kept him relevant over the last year.
I think, though, that the people who don’t think Armstrong has been punished enough might enjoy this film. You see the guy suffering and I at least realized that this is not an emotionally healthy person. His treatment of people along the way cannot be justified, but the “attack/win at all costs” component of Armstrong’s personality was never a secret. The film doesn’t justify anything, but I think it helps give you a better understanding of why events played out as it did. In a scandal as wide reaching as this, understanding is about all you can hope for. Hopefully peace will come to all the players, maybe further down the road.