REVIEW – The Armstrong Lie (2013)

FilmJuice have my review of Alex Gibney’s sports documentary The Armstrong Lie.

I went into this film with quite a good impression of Gibney as a filmmaker. I loved his award-winning Taxi to the Dark Side about the use of torture in the Iraq war and his Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room about the myriad ways in which elements of American government, business and media made the collapse of Enron possible. I love those films because Gibney takes a couple of big, explosive news stories and proceeds to do precisely the kind of stuff that the media reporting the stories refused to do: Explain events by embedding them in a broader cultural and sociopolitical context. When The Armstrong Lie applies this methodology to the world of professional cycling, the film is fascinating… the problem is that Gibney keeps allowing Armstrong himself to get in the way:

The problem with this film is that Armstrong’s story is not interesting enough to sustain an entire film. At the end of the day, Armstrong was an ambitious and aggressive man who did everything in his power to win, including cheat. His history of testicular cancer along with his deprived childhood may well account for his will to victory but anyone who looks at the amount of money he made and the level of fame he reached should be able to work out why he cheated and why he continued lying about it until he was eventually caught. Like most sportsmen, Armstrong does not appear to be imbued with a profound inner life and so any attempt to tell his personal story will inevitably come across as being rather dull and predictable

Lance Armstrong’s story should by now be familiar to anyone who is not living in a cave on Mars with their fingers crammed in their ears. Gibney originally set out to make a film about Armstrong’s return to the sport in 2009 and his claims to be running the race ‘clean’ for the first time since his return after testicular cancer. Mercifully, this film collapsed when it became obvious that Armstrong was still cheating and planning on using Gibney to help repair his reputation. The collapse of this earlier project forced Gibney to make a more interesting film as his desire to understand Armstrong’s motivations forced him to look into the culture of a sport that had effectively been sanctioning secret doping for decades. At its best, The Armstrong Lie really connects with the idea that Armstrong succeeded simply because he was a more talented and organised cheat than anyone else in cycling at the time. The problem is that, rather than focusing upon what made Armstrong such an effective cheat, Gibney keeps getting distracted by questions about Armstrong’s motivations and mental state. This proves incredibly frustrating as the whole point of the film is that Armstrong was always a wheel in a much bigger machine who managed to protect the machine by attracting all the attention to a single cog.

The film is filled with footage of journalists and sporting officials trying to hold Armstrong to account but they never get close to him. Every time someone asks about doping, Armstrong puts on a sad face, mentions his cancer as well as the work he did for cancer charities and moves the debate away from whether or not he cheated to the more tricky question of whether or not a journalist or a sporting official have the right to persecute a cancer survivor who raises millions of dollars for other cancer survivors. Indeed, Gibney completely misses the fact that Armstrong’s 2009 Tour de France saw him refusing to answer questions from anyone other than a  disgrace former team-mate who had reinvented himself as a sports presenter. Even if such a man did manage to hold Armstrong to account with an awkward question, Armstrong could simply paint the journalist as a bitter hypocrite and thereby shift the discussion away from whether or not he cheated and towards the far more comfortable question of whether or not it was appropriate to even discuss that possibility.

Armstrong was a brilliant cheat because he managed to protect not only himself but his entire sport from serious scrutiny. He did this by magically transforming all questions about drugs in cycling into questions about whether or not it was appropriate to question the honesty of a cancer survivor and charity worker.

The question of how Armstrong managed this trick is actually very similar to the question of how a vicious paedophile like Jimmy Saville could not only escape prosecution but also enjoy a successful career in show-business. The trick that both Saville and Armstrong pulled is that they managed to position themselves so close to a series of institutions that it effectively became impossible to challenge the individual without also challenging the institutions they stood next to. If this wasn’t bad enough, the relationship between the criminals and the institutions was so close that the institutions wound up with a vested interest in defending the criminal who was using them as cover. How could the BBC, the Royal Family or the various charities he supported distance themselves from Jimmy Saville without admitting their close ties to a paedophile? How could the Tour de France distance itself from Lance Armstrong without admitting that it was their culture of rules-bending that allowed him to rise to prominence in the first place?





REVIEW – Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (2012)

MeaMaximaCulpa1FilmJuice have my review of Alex Gibney’s documentary Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God.

One of the most fascinating battlefronts in contemporary culture is the question of how the baby boomers will be remembered once they are gone. Raised amidst talk of their parents having been the greatest of all generations, the boomers have always been intensely aware of their own place in history and the need to impose some sort of narrative on their predictably chaotic lives. For a long time now, the baby boomers have been telling us that theirs was the most liberal and radical of generations: Neither empire-builders nor war-mongers, they came out against the Vietnam War, spawned the summer of love and demanded the right to live life entirely upon their own terms. That generation did it all and when the time came for them to ‘grow up’ they took their longhaired rebel logic with them into the boardroom and created one of the longest periods of sustained economic growth in the history of humanity. Nowhere is the desire to ‘fashion’ the generational narrative more evident than in Hollywood where B-movie Shitlord Roger Corman has been re-imagined as a visionary producer simply because Hollywood boomers need to believe that they rose to the top in a period of unrivalled openness and experimentation.

While inter-generational power differences mean that relatively few people are directly calling out the boomers on their relentless selfishness and toxic self-involvement, we are beginning to see some pushback in the form of prominent institutions falling into scandal and crisis. Indeed, the UK’s Operation Yewtree seems to be quietly re-inventing the swinging 60s as a time when men with jobs in the British media got to rape as many young women as they wanted while police and employers looked the other way. Turns out that ‘free love’ only ever applied to powerful white dudes. Alex Gibney’s documentary Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God is very much a part of this cultural battlefield as it is one of many recent documentaries to suggest that the 60s and 70s were a time when Catholic priests were effectively above the law when it came to the sexual abuse of children. Much like Kirby Dick’s Twist of Faith and Amy J. Berg’s Deliver Us From Evil, Mea Maxima Culpa suggests that child abuse was almost systemic as was the Church’s desire to protect the abuser at the expense of the abused.

The science fiction writer William Gibson once stated that while the future is here, it has not been evenly distributed and I think the same can be said of the liberal individualism of the baby boomers: Much like the revelations of Operation Yewtree, films like Mea Maxima Culpa suggest that while some people had a load of fun in the 60s and 70s, this fun came exclusively at the expense of people who have been denied the right to give their own impressions of what life was like at that particular time. Though Mea Maxima Culpa may lack the anger and analytic depth of films like Twist of Faith and Deliver us from Evil, it does do a singularly fantastic job of letting the voiceless speak for themselves, something that is particularly important given that the abused, in this case, were all deaf:

Gibney films his interviews with the survivors using an elegantly subdued form of lighting that beautifully emphasises the expressiveness of their faces. Also important is the fact that, rather than systematically cutting away from the survivors and having their words translated by non-deaf actors, Gibney keeps the audience’s attention firmly on the survivors allowing them to communicate their own feelings in their own words and in their own language. This choice of interview technique is important because Mea Maxima Culpa is not just about the Catholic Church’s attempts to cover-up decades of sexual abuse, it is also about giving a voice to people who had theirs taken away by a Church that claimed to have their best interests at heart.

As someone whose familiarity with sign language is limited to on-screen sign translation of TV programmes, it really was fascinating to see native signers using their own language to deliver incredibly personal and intimate truths. Sign translators are professional translators rather than actors and so they tend to translate what they are hearing in a way that communicates their personal detachment from the material (their facial expressions and body language tend to say ‘this is a sad bit’ rather than ‘I am sad’) and so seeing sign language being used in an emotive manner was really quite the revelation. Even if you are not all that interested in another story about the moral bankruptcy of the Catholic Church I think that Gibney’s interviews with the abuse survivors alone make this a film worth seeking out.