It was supposed to be a break from the dark side of humanity. Subjects that Alex Gibney had plumbed in documentaries such as “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” (2005), about the fraudulent corporation that despoiled its employees; “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God” (2012), about the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal; and, of course, the Oscar-winning “Taxi to the Dark Side” (2007), about an innocent Afghani murdered by American soldiers. Gibney’s new project was supposed to be an uplifting film about redemption and perseverance and inspirational victory, chronicling Lance Armstrong’s attempted comeback in the 2009 Tour de France in search of his eighth victory, and vindication from the charges of doping that had hounded his career.
But it was not to be. Just as the film, then titled “The Road Back,” neared completion, Armstrong’s decade of denial collapsed. No longer could he indignantly insist that he never abused prohibited performance-enhancing drugs and blood transfusions to accomplish his “miraculous” triumphs. So a new, darker, sadder story emerged, and a different film, with the title “The Armstrong Lie.”
“I first started realizing that the redemption story might have problems when Floyd Landis [Armstrong’s former teammate who testified that he witnessed Armstrong doping] came forward in 2010,” said Gibney, speaking on the phone last Monday from Chicago, where he was promoting the film. “Then there was the federal investigation. So, suddenly it was, let’s hang on here and see how the story plays out.”
And so the story played out, culminating when Armstrong appeared on TV with Oprah Winfrey last January, and confessed the extent of his dishonesty, admitting to his years of cheating. He was cheating Gibney, too, by going to Oprah; Armstrong had promised that Gibney would be the first person he would talk to when he came clean.
“I was pretty angry,” Gibney said. “But I would have been more shocked and angry if I had been a true believer. But what made me really angry was that I realized I had been used. And I felt he owed it to me to sit down and talk with me again.”
Armstrong ultimately did sit down with Gibney, and that interview was combined with the existing footage documenting the 2009 race. Gibney also included interviews with Betsy Andreu, the wife of former Armstrong teammate Frankie Andreu, and someone whom Gibney regards as one of the few real heroes of the story. She had testified in 2005 that she overheard Armstrong describe his drug use to a physician in 1996 while he was being treated for cancer. She resisted pressure from Armstrong and associates to recant these statements and, as is often the case with whistleblowers, paid the price.
“I lost a lot of time with my kids,” Andreu said by phone from New York, where she was participating in a press day for the film. “For so long I was trying to be heard, to say, look, I never lied. Answering questions, contacting people. Making the case that I was telling the truth. When you’re defending yourself for a good 10 years it’s not fun. I was defamed and publicly excoriated and I always told the truth. We lost so much money. But they can keep the money. I’ll take the peace within.”
Andreu feels the film now goes a long way to setting the record straight, and these additions and the new context elevated the project from what Gibney himself described as a “feel-good movie” to something more complex and ambiguous, which reflects on itself and on Armstrong’s adept myth-making.
“I think now it’s a more profound movie,” Gibney said. “It’s definitely more interesting. The other one had aspects that were great. It was a sports movie, basically. But there was a lot of material already in there that did anticipate the idea of myth-building and how you could hide a myth in plain sight. As far back as 1999 there was a lot of evidence that Lance had doped, but between Lance’s forceful personality and the enormous appeal of his narrative, all the allegations never seemed to stick. People were more interested in the beautiful lie than the ugly truth.”
The revised film, which opens here on Friday, also confronted a theme prominent in many of Gibney’s other documentaries: the abuse of power and the power of lies. “I don’t like bullies,” said Gibney. “ ‘Taxi to the Dark Side’ is about people in the ultimate position of power torturing other human beings. ‘Enron’ was about this huge corporation that told lies and abused power. I’m drawn to these stories. I’m drawn to tell the stories of the perps, but I recognize the damage they do to their victims.”
As his new documentary evolved from feel-good sports film to exposé of a charismatic perp, Gibney noticed similarities between Armstrong and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, whom Gibney profiled in his film “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks,” released earlier this year. Both men worked for good causes — Armstrong in his activities on behalf of fellow cancer patients, Assange through his efforts to disclose government secrets. And both have been accused of exploiting these idealistic causes for less than noble reasons.
“Lance is afflicted with what police call ‘noble cause corruption,’” Gibney explained. “He thought his work entitled him to tell lies and crush those who threatened him, because the ends justify the means. Julian also said that he liked to crush people. Crush people like bugs! Also, like Lance, Assange’s father ran out on him very early. There are a lot of parallels. They are both good storytellers and they have fantastic charisma at times.”
That charisma drew the interest of Steven Frears, who is now in the process of making a film about Armstrong with Ben Foster in the lead role. It’s not the first time that the subject of a Gibney film has made the transition from documentary to fictional feature. Assange was portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in Bill Condon’s “The Fifth Estate,” which came out last month. Gibney’s 2010 documentary “Casino Jack and the United States of Money,” about the flamboyantly corrupt Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, was followed up by the late George Hickenlooper’s feature “Casino Jack” (2010), with Kevin Spacey in the title.
Though he might be flattered, Gibney has also been ticked off at times by such imitations. For example, his lawyers tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade Hickenlooper to change the title of his Abramoff movie. Not that Gibney feels intimidated by the big Hollywood productions. As good as they might be, they can’t offer what his films do — the real thing.
“Sometimes when you have larger-than-life characters they’re better than the actors, even when the actors are very talented,” he said. “Good as Cumberbatch is, Julian Assange is the better Assange. Same thing with Lance Armstrong. I like Ben Foster and I think he’s an incredibly dedicated actor. He’ll do a really powerful job. But it will be hard to have anyone playing Lance Armstrong better than Lance Armstrong. He was the writer, director, and lead actor of his own drama.”
Though “The Armstrong Lie” survived the abrupt changes that rocked it, and was a better film for it, Gibney was glad to turn from that to his new project, “Finding Fela!,” a look into the inspiring, exhilarating story of the Nigerian musician and human rights activist Fela Kuti. This, he hopes, will be the movie that gives him a break from always looking into the dark side of life.
But you can never be sure with documentaries. “What am I going to find about Fela that I didn’t know?” Gibney asked, perhaps not entirely in jest. “We’re pretty close to finishing. I hope there’s no left turn.”
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.