In no other place are we so
desperate to crown monarchs, to live vicariously through victory and wealth,
than in the realm of celebrity. We are smitten by the success of others. In Lance
Armstrong, we were given a character for the ages. A man born to a single
mother in East Nowhere, Texas. A cancer survivor who rose to prominence in a
sport dominated by Europeans and ignored by Americans. While Michael Jordan, Wayne
Gretzky, and Brett Favre were preceded by Julius Erving, Bobby Orr, and Roger Staubach,
Armstrong was a singular entity, the king of a land that had just been
discovered. He dated rock stars and supermodels. He was handsome and wealthy. His
celebrity was virginal, and unique in the glimmering magazine cover world
dominated by common and contrived stories.

And it was, in its entirety,
built on lies all too familiar. Built on vengeance. Cheating. A complex system
of blood doping and performance-enhancing drugs designed to take him to the
forefront of his sport, and the heights of celebrity.

Alex Gibney’s The Armstrong Lie began as a tale of
redemption. In 2009, the disgraced cyclist returned to the scene of his
greatest achievements, the Tour de France, where he had won a record seven
titles, and brought Gibney and crew to capture his comeback. But, once again,
Armstrong (as is now well-documented) was caught cheating and doping, and
Gibney’s film was put on hiatus. Four years later, Armstrong reached out to
Gibney to set the record straight on his marred career, and the documentary
became a story of a man so driven to greatness, so oblivious to his own self-destructive
nature, that he was deluded into believing he had yet another comeback in him, a
comeback not in competition, but in the public spectrum, one that would feature
Oprah in a supporting role as his hand-picked interviewer/enabler/PR shill, and
one that Gibney would capture for posterity.

Unfortunately, both the film and
its subject are deeply flawed. Armstrong is fearlessly naïve about his ability
to dope without being caught, to charm without being transparent– and Gibney
is so taken by Armstrong’s aura and the story he hopes to tell that he raises
the question as to why viewers have been asked to empathize with a ruthless,
destructive, vindictive cheat. In footage shot during the 2009 Tour comeback,
Armstrong and Gibney come off as teammates, certainly more than Armstrong and
his actual teammates, who more closely resemble reluctant participants in the
lies. Gibney, on more than one occasion in his narration and the film’s action,
reveals himself to be cheering for Armstrong, a revelation both awkward for the
audience and counter to the medium of documentary. A successful documentary
revels in its subject and defines the immersive; it puts the viewer at the
story’s core and the filmmaker in the quiet shadows. The Armstrong Lie takes on a promotional tone, and though
Armstrong’s warts are revealed, Gibney foolishly attempts to apply cover-up, by
shifting blame or asserting over-and-over that everyone in cycling was doping, to
conceal what the audience is already well aware of, that Armstrong cheated his
way to celebrity, and did so with no care for those around him. Armstrong uses
Gibney as he used his teammates, his celebrity, his fans, and his sport.

What is also startling about The Armstrong Lie’s failings is its
overt effort to isolate Armstrong, a man who defines isolation through his
manner and sport. Whether it be from former teammates, Italian doping doctor Michele
Ferrari, or Gibney himself, the film tries desperately to reveal Armstrong as a
loner, a man on a mission to dominate a sport, and attain celebrity no matter
the cost. However, Armstrong does this with little or no help. Gibney’s heavy
hand is present throughout, most notably through the near total absence of
Armstrong’s family. Some of his children appear for a moment, when they are awkward
witnesses to a surprise drug test, a test seemingly as common as the breakfast
it interrupts. Armstrong’s first wife is not mentioned. His current partner is
acknowledged briefly, as are his dalliances in celebrity dating. Perhaps Gibney
wanted viewers to simply assume known facts–but this comes across as an
attempt by a director to find the movie he wants, and not the film unfolding
before him.

What appears above may seem like
an indictment of the film, though it is anything but. Through his complicity in
the Armstrong lie, Gibney reveals the very manner in which we are all complicit
in the deception of celebrity. While Gibney shows Armstrong with children
struggling with cancer as an attempt to elicit empathy, instead we see a man
who will use anyone, including children suffering from the very disease that
nearly claimed his life, in order to disguise the truth of his being. Gibney is
as taken by Armstrong as the children are, as the cameras are, as we were. 

During the height of the
Armstrong affair I appeared on the sports and pop culture program, PLAY with A.J. As part of their humorous
“30 Seconds of Fame” segment, I were asked, “The Huffington Post is reporting that there are three
Lance Armstrong movies in the works…what should the movie be called?”
My reply was: “One Ball, but What a Dick:
The Lance Armstrong Story
.” I wouldn’t normally dare to find a punch line
in cancer, a horrific disease that is devoid of humor or prejudice. But
Armstrong’s betrayal of his fans, family, his charity, his sport, allowed for
my humour.

But the joke said more about the celebrity
relationship of sports fandom than the failings of Armstrong. With The Armstrong Lie, Gibney is no different from the fans that
cheered Barry Bonds to 73 home runs in 2001, golf’s apologists who continued to
feed the Tiger Woods machine despite sordid tales of flawed character, or the
NFL fans who continue to embrace Michael Vick despite his serving jail time for
abusing dogs. Sports fandom allows for this obliviousness in a manner that
Hollywood does not because of cultural familiarity. We’ve all ridden a bike,
swung a bat, tossed a football, and yet so few of us have sung on stage, or
acted, or written. We live vicariously through athletes because we don’t
require a giant leap of faith to imagine ourselves in their Nikes. And so we
excuse their faults because we so wish that their faults could be ours.

We know how the story ends, and The Armstrong Lie is well aware of that.
The documentary’s post-script is unnecessary. Armstrong was stripped of his
seven Tour de France titles, dropped by his sponsors, and dismissed by his own
cancer charity, Livestrong. If it was Gibney’s intention when editing his
footage to include himself as a character through which the audience
experiences the director’s flaws analogous to our own, then the film is a
rousing success. If it was unintentional, then it fails as a documentary film,
but not as a document. Either way, The
Armstrong Lie
is a riveting examination of both celebrity and those of us
who feed it, and while it may not completely give us permission to laugh, it
asks us to consider our relationship with those through whom we live

Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The
Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among
others, and contributes to MTV’s
with AJ
. He is the author of the poetry collection JACK (Snare
Books, 2008), the short story collection
Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press,
2011), and the co-author of
Cheap Throat: The Diary of a Locked-Out
Hockey Player
(Found Press,
2013). His next poetry collection,
Bourbon & Eventide, is forthcoming in 2014
from Invisible Publishing. Follow him on Twitter

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