As Lance Armstrong climbed Mont Ventoux during a key leg of the 2009 Tour de France, the superstar’s power as a cyclist -- and mythmaker -- mesmerized documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney.
“I was caught up along the way, that’s a fact,” Gibney said in a Sept. 8 interview after the screening of “The Armstrong Lie” at the Toronto International Film Festival. “I’m sitting there on Ventoux, saying ‘Go man, go.’ Having followed him every day, you can’t help but be impressed.”
The documentary is a tale of two films that began as a possible comeback story set amid allegations that Armstrong had doped to win seven consecutive editions of the Tour de France. Gibney first set out to profile the Texan’s 2009 return to racing from four years in retirement, following the cyclist as he attempted to win an unprecedented eighth title.
That film, narrated by Matt Damon, was nearly ready to be released when a series of former teammates went public in 2010 and 2011 with drug-use allegations against Armstrong. Investigations by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and then the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency ensued.
In January, Armstrong confessed during an interview with Oprah Winfrey to having used performance-enhancing drugs in all seven of his Tour de France victories. He was later stripped of his titles.
“We sat on our hands” for over a year, trying to decide what to do as the investigations intensified, Gibney said. When the Oscar-winning director realized he would need to redo the film, he decided to replace Damon’s narration with his own.
“The only way to make the second film work was to put myself in it, because I had been betrayed,” Gibney said. “Part of putting myself in the film was also to make it real in terms of how a lie like this works.”
Gibney has tackled smooth-talking corporations and politicians in his earlier critically acclaimed documentaries. “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” chronicled the rise and fall of the U.S. energy trading company and was nominated for an Oscar. “Taxi to the Dark Side,” a look into the death of an Afghan taxi driver while in U.S. Army custody, won him an Oscar in 2008, and “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer” also won plaudits.
Taking on a controversial star like Armstrong was a different kind of challenge, firstly because he knew little about cycling.
“My idea of a bicycle was a Schwinn,” Gibney said. “When I first met him, I said I know you ride a bicycle and I know you’re good at it.”
The film includes race footage from fixed cameras along the Tour de France route and bike-mounted recorders that makes it compelling viewing. That footage is interspersed with interviews with Armstrong in 2009 and before that reveal insights into his sheer will to win. “Losing is like death,” the cyclist says.
“The Armstrong Lie” also dwells on interviews after his January confession to Winfrey, when he is a grayer-haired, wearier-looking man.
In his conversations with Gibney, Armstrong admits fascinating details like the fact that his U.S. Postal Service team had a motorbike rider they dubbed “Motoman” who rode the routes of the 1999 tour to deliver the drugs they needed to help them win, the cyclist said.
Armstrong ultimately said he justified his earlier tour victories through 2005 because everyone else was doping. In 2009 and 2010 when he came back to ride in the Tour de France, finishing third and then 23rd respectively, Gibney said Armstrong told him he was clean. Mark Fabiani, a spokesman for Armstrong, didn’t respond to an e-mail and phone call seeking comment about the film.
Betsy Andreu, the wife of Armstrong’s former teammate Frankie Andreu, appears throughout the documentary. She first came to prominence after she and her husband both testified in a 2006 deposition that they heard Armstrong tell doctors in 1996 during his hospital cancer treatment that he had used performance-enhancing drugs. Armstrong was asked by Winfrey about the hospital episode. Despite having confessed to drug-taking during his Tour de France victories, he said “I’m not going to take that on.”
Andreu attended the screening yesterday and said afterward in an interview she was initially wary of getting involved in the film because she feared Gibney might be making too much of a feel-good movie. Over time, her impressions changed.
“He’s a good listener. He got it,” she said. As for the film? “It was good and I’m glad that I trusted him,” she said.
The Armstrong story may be portrayed in at least one other film. English director Stephen Frears (“The Queen,” “Dangerous Liaisons”) said yesterday in Toronto he’s planning to start shooting a feature about Armstrong this year starring American actor Ben Foster in the lead role, Canadian Press reported.
Gibney said Armstrong will probably see his documentary soon. The director didn’t want him to see it before a public screening, to make it clear Armstrong had no influence on how the film was put together.
The filmmaker said he would like to believe that the sport of cycling is much cleaner now, but it’s hard to know if the cheats are simply one step ahead of the scientists.
“Nobody was popped this year but doesn’t mean that someone hasn’t found the magic sauce we don’t know about yet.”