Filmmaker Alex Gibney has a thing for liars and sadists, although he swears it’s not an active bias. “It’s a curse,” he says, with a self-deprecating laugh. “It’s not deliberate. But it always seems to come back to the same place.” Best known for his Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side (2007), which documented the U.S. use of torture in Afghanistan, the 60-year-old producer-director has upwards of 45 movie credits, including We Steal Secrets: the Story of WikiLeaks (which is not shy about the flaws of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange); Client 9 (on the fall of New York governor/notorious john Eliot Spitzer); and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (which connected the dots of what was not only the largest corporate bankruptcy at the time, but a massive scam).
For his latest effort, though, he didn’t set out to expose a fraud. In late 2008, he accepted an offer to chronicle Lance Armstrong’s return to pro cycling after a three-year retirement. The idea: an intimate, heart-swelling comeback story on an already mythic athlete and cancer survivor. So The Road Back, as it was called, largely was. Yet before Gibney could finish lining up distribution for the picture, Armstrong’s past began catching up with him, as teammates came clean on the elaborate doping conspiracy that had helped Armstrong and his teams win his seven consecutive Tour de France races. The Road Back got shelved.
Following Armstrong’s confession to Oprah this January, Gibney told the disgraced cyclist that he owed him another interview. Armstrong consented, and Gibney began building a second movie: The Armstrong Lie, which makes its debut tonight in New York, Los Angeles, and, pointedly, Austin, Tex. At 2 hours and 2 minutes, Lie is arguably 10 to 15 minutes too long, but even so, it’s rarely short of gripping. (See our review.) We spoke to Gibney in the Manhattan office of his company, Jigsaw Productions, as he made fast work of a takeout lunch.
When Armstrong decided to return in 2008-09, he made a big show of submitting to every drug test he could to prove he was clean. Do you think the reason he came back was to prove to everyone—and maybe foremost himself—that he could win without doping?
Yes. I mean, part of it had to be the old athlete thing. Michael Jordan coming back one more time. It’s like they miss the action. They need it. But I have to believe that a big part of his decision to return was to come back and say, “yeah, watch me, every step of the way ….” And look what he’s doing with me. I make investigative films, and he said, fine, come photograph us. Want to talk to Dr. Ferrari [the mastermind of Armstrong’s doping scheme]? Sure, go talk to Dr. Ferrari. Open book.
Bit of a dare, really.
Yeah, but I didn’t really fully appreciate that until later. Suddenly I woke up, and my anger was not necessarily [about] being lied to—because I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck, I figured it was likely Lance had doped in previous Tours. I woke up one day and thought, oh, right, I’m part of the coverup.
You have a good rapport with him in the movie. Do you like him?
On a day-to-day basis I do like Lance. But you can like somebody and not approve of the things that they do, and that was a reckoning I had making the movie. Also, one of the reasons I put myself in the film was to explore the relationship a fan has to an athlete. When you root for an athlete, you don’t want the athlete to be less than you think they might be, so you start to banish ideas about doping and darker possibilities. That’s where it becomes tricky.
Those who still want to root for him might say, “So he doped, and he lied. But look at all the good he did.” Did he pay some karmic dues with his cancer advocacy, or was that part of his cover?
It was part of his cover, but it was also real. Some of Lance’s fans and Lance himself might view it that one thing balances the other. I don’t see it that way. You always have to separate. But what gave Lance the license to tell this big lie is that people liked the lie. They liked it a lot, as he says in the movie.
You seem drawn to the ethically compromised. Were you struck by any parallels with your previous exposés?
There were certain similarities between this film and the Enron film, but there are also certain similarities between this film and the one about [Julian] Assange. And that’s the psychological process called noble cause corruption. It’s the idea that because you do something good, it entitles you to be a little bit bad. Lance went to cheating for a much more pragmatic reason, but over time he thought the good he was doing allowed him to go after people who were trying to tell the truth, which most people think is his biggest crime.
With Enron, the theme that reverberates is the “win at all costs” culture. As a corporation, Enron was results-oriented. Nothing else mattered. As one guy said, “If you saw a guy lying on the ground, and you had the opportunity to step on his throat, you step on his throat.” That was considered a good thing, not a bad thing. And when the traders were laughing about California going up in flames because they were shutting off the electricity? They were laughing because that was their version of “thinning the herd,” making California more responsive to the market and therefore more efficient. To their minds, they were practicing a necessary cruelty. Well, there’s an element of that in Lance Armstrong.
The “win at all costs” condition you’re describing—that seems like a broader American condition.
I think it’s an American problem. It doesn’t let Lance off the hook, but I think Lance was feeding into an American culture that is a win-at-all-costs culture. The businessmen who were around propping him up, Tailwind, the sponsors who were propping him up, these guys were like, “Fuck it. There are losers, and there are winners; there’s alphas, and there’s betas.” Right? And this whole story is writ large when you understand that kind of culture. So I don’t think that’s hyperbolic at all. It’s the straw that stirs the drink, unfortunately.
Now, you can’t say that this American attitude caused doping in cycling, because cycling is a very European sport, and doping was always a part of cycling in Europe. But the idea to push it as far as Lance pushed it is a very American idea. It’s like, we’re winners, so we deserve to win. So anything we do is OK, because we’re winners. That’s the way Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling thought.
Performance enhancing, or stabilizing, drugs—Xanax, painkillers, even caffeine—are used by the wider population to stay effective on the job. Yet when pro athletes push their limits or extend their careers with drugs, they’re vilified for it. Is there a double standard at work here?
Not really. Did you read that Malcolm Gladwell piece recently? He wrote a piece about Enron that I had the same feeling about: clever, but also really unsatisfying, because it leads you down the road of saying, “Yeah, it is a little weird that life isn’t fair, or a level playing field, if you have some guy with the lungs of an alien competing against people who don’t have that. Shouldn’t somebody else be able to augment [their lungs], so they can compete with the natural freak?” Well, it’s not fair for me that I’m slow, short, and white. I’ll never play center in the NBA. But so what? As Bill Walton once said, “basketball is for tall people.” That’s a good thing. The point is every sport has rules. If sports didn’t have rules, then you’d have the worst kind of Hobbesian vision, which I think is what Lance, at his worst, represented, which is winning is the only thing that matters.
It’s chilling when he tells you that, after he recovered from cancer, he equated losing with death.
If that really were what you believed, you’d probably dope, too.
In the first film we had him complete that thought, because he comes in third [in 2009]. Lance is a smart enough custodian of his own myth to understand the power of the first statement, and how to modify it, so he says, “Well, this year, I didn’t win, and I didn’t die, and I had to reckon with that fact. That maybe it’s OK that I didn’t win. And maybe it’s better.” He’s spinning his own story. Frankly, it was Lance telling me what I wanted to hear.
In 2009, after it was clear he wouldn’t win, he makes an astonishing comeback to secure a podium finish, and on a climb he never did well on even at his best. You wonder if he doped again, right under your nose. Are you of the opinion that he did?
I’m pretty strongly of that opinion. I don’t think it was EPO. My theory is that Lance had an insurance bag [of fresh blood] available to him if racing clean didn’t work out. So he did a transfusion. He says in the film, “I intended to race clean.” Which is an interesting phrase. Though elsewhere he says, “I definitely raced clean in 2009,” that’s what he said at the time: “intended to.”
In the movie, you reveal that there was another filmmaking team following you around during the 2009 Tour to make “the anti-Gibney film.” Greg LeMond, the former Tour champion, had hired them, I guess, because he thought you’d go too easy on Lance. Anything ever come of that?
No, though some of that footage is actually in my film. I was able to license it because Greg never completed the film. I reached out to [LeMond] once, but he was sick then, unavailable, and then, at a certain point, I decided not to go there. Greg was a prominent critic of Lance but he was never an insider, and most of my film is about the insiders. But I did find it odd to be in a situation where Greg was filming me as the malefactor.
You not only narrate this movie; you put yourself in it. In 2008, you did Gonzo, a documentary on the late investigative journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who also put himself in his stories. Is he something a model for you?
It’s funny—I narrate my movies, but I didn’t narrate that one. Johnny Depp did. The aspect of Hunter that I particularly admire—it’s in his book about the ’72 campaign—was his ability to do serious reporting but also to take the storytelling mechanisms of fiction and to employ them in a nonfiction context. That way, you can tell a story that’s pretty exciting, sometimes funny, even if the material is dark. Hunter’s pretty dark, but he’s also really funny. I’ll never put myself so much at the heart of the story as Hunter did. He was a larger than life character. I’m a much more shy-and-retiring type.
Have you shown the film to Lance?
We wanted to. Instead of showing up, he sent his representatives. One of his advisers said he’s never going to see it. I don’t think that’s true. Lance has a great sense of authorship in his own story. He always wants to talk, I think, because he always wants to influence that story. So I think he’ll see it at some point, but I don’t know what he thinks.