Lance Armstrong's story is familiar to most Americans, fair-weather sports fans and die-hard cyclists alike. An incredible athlete overcomes testicular cancer, wins the Tour de France seven times, raises millions of dollars for his cause and inspires people all over the world to wear little yellow bracelets ("LIVESTRONG"). But it was all built on a lie.
Armstrong's decade-long fabrication fell apart when his former teammates outed him to the media. Later, Armstrong himself confessed to Oprah Winfrey that he had doped during all seven of his Tour de France victories. Before the confessions, Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney set about to make a movie, recording Armstrong's return to cycling in 2009. He had retired from the sport, but announced he'd compete in the Tour de France for one last time, and he'd do it clean. That year, Armstrong finished the race in third place. Gibney declared it a perfect ending to the movie he set out to make. Instead, he wound up making "The Armstrong Lie."
After the allegations and Armstrong's confession, Gibney -- who is also behind acclaimed documentaries "Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room," "Taxi To The Dark Side" and "Client 9: The Rise And Fall of Eliot Spitzer" -- scrapped his original documentary about Armstrong's comeback, which he had entitled "The Road Back." Requesting more interviews with Armstrong, this time he demanded the truth.
HuffPost Entertainment caught up with Gibney, who is currently working on two shorter sports documentaries for ESPN. "Sports is a dramatic condensation of life," he said over the phone. "I love sports and I think they work as a kind of grander metaphor for what makes us human." Below, Gibney opens up about being what it was like to be an unknowing cog in Armstrong's marketing machine and what his story tells us about the media's expectations of athletes.
What was it like confronting Lance after you knew he lied to you for a year?
I was actually gratified to sit down with him. We’d been talking on the phone a good bit so it wasn’t a mystery. But now we were going to do it on the record.
The interviews he did with you were obviously very different than the ones he did with Oprah.
Frankly, I give her more credit than a lot of people do. I think there are a lot of things about that interview that she handled very well. But at the same time, that kind of live interview very often turns into a kind of performance. It’s a performance of the moment. In the interviews I do, I try to take the pressure off a little bit. I prefer a more wide-ranging conversation. I think that ends up eliciting a very different kind of testimony. You can almost see him change visibly. Even when I did the formal interviews in 2009, he was almost assuming the position. It’s kind of like a politician. Suddenly they get in front of a microphone and the TV cameras are rolling and they start talking in a very artificial way. It’s as if they're one step removed from the real person and the public person. So in those conversations with Lance I was trying to see if we could have a conversation with a real person rather than the PR person.
It seems like you were able to get behind that PR machine that he had kind of brought you into in the newest interviews. Were you still looking for more?
I felt that way sometimes and frustrated other times. I was frustrated that he didn’t answer the question about when it was that he first doped. It seemed like after all this time, that would be an important question and one he which wouldn’t further complicate matters for him. At the same time he was quite forthcoming about other things, saying other things like, "I did it the way I did it because I thought I’d never get caught. I knew people were going to come after me in 2009 and I did it anyway."
What does Lance's story say about the way media treats athletes who have incredible backstories, where they become heroes to so many?
It poses a problem for all of us. The media seems to like stories in which you have pure good guys and pure bad guys. The idea of gray is not that appealing. The media loves Lance Armstrong’s story. It was such a powerful, compelling story. Guy comes back from near death, beats cancer and then wins the Tour de France seven times. That’s the story of a century. Everyone wanted that story so much, they didn’t really want other things to interfere with it. But isn’t that funny? Over time, we’ve learned a lot about athletes in particular and also politicians, and we know that sometimes great athletes aren’t always terrifically nice human beings. But then, does that mean what they do on the field is bad? Not necessarily. So it’s this need, I think, that the media has to demand either perfection or the exact opposite. The white hat, black hat thing. He was built up for long to be this iconic figure in the face of evidence to the contrary, at least about doping. All the evidence was staring everybody in the face, but when it was revealed that he had doped, suddenly the media, the same people who had burnished his reputation now jumped on it with full fury. I think that’s one of the things that the film was about, in a way.
How do you think "The Armstrong Lie" relates to a lot of your other projects, which are about what some people would call more serious topics?
Well, you know, I think "Armstrong Lie" has a lot in common with "Enron." You have to remember that before Enron went bust, there were a lot of people who believed it was the greatest company ever. There was a kind of a tacit agreement among the media to praise it endlessly as a wave of the future. And also there was a sense by the executives at Enron that they were doing the right thing. Therefore if they strayed a little bit, cheated here and there because they were on the right side of things, they had everyone’s best interests at heart, that that was okay. I think there’s a lot going on in the Enron story that carried through to "The Armstrong Lie."
It seems like Armstrong was his own giant corporation brought down by the truth, which is what your work seems to be all about finding: the truth in these giant lies.
I think his was an unbelievably powerful story that he marketed. He and the people around him, including the sponsors and the Tour itself, marketed it incredibly well. In that sense, it was like a big corporation. The whole idea of money and how big a role money played in that story is very powerful. But it turns out that perfect story wasn’t so perfect. And then, like Enron, it unraveled.
Someone in the film said that, at the time, cyclists played by the rules of the road, but they weren’t the actual rules. It was an interesting comparison to life in general, and the the inner struggles we have about doing what’s right or doing what everyone else is doing.
The way that person said it was right. Lance may have been operating according to the rules of the road at the time but he wasn’t operating according to rules. I did another film about fraud on Wall Street, "Client 9," and asked if it was okay if all the banks are artificially propping up their earnings. Does it make it okay? And I would suggest no, it doesn’t. But it does suggest a context you have to understand. All the top cyclists were doping but does that make it a level playing field? No. Lance had advantages that other people didn’t have because of the power of his story. He also went after people for trying to tell the truth, so these are the questions I want people to reflect on in the film. You have to take this stuff in context. You have to tease out the different elements of the story in order to properly understand them.
"The Armstrong Lie," released on Blu-ray and DVD on Feb. 11, comes with exclusive commentary, interviews and deleted scenes.