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?





Neds (2010) – Don’t Let You Get the Best of You

David Simon has a lot to answer for.

There was a time, around the turn of the millennium, when big institutions had their day in the sun: In foreign affairs, people began to look to the United Nations as a venue for resolving political conflicts while independent NGOs were seen not only as fonts of specialised knowledge but as self-less agents for change and charity.  In domestic affairs, the backlash against the Thatcherite era of cuts and privatisations gained political substance as people began to demand proper investment in schools and hospitals.  In the UK at least, this unexpected belief in the power of institutions to change the world swept the Labour party into power with a mandate for an ‘ethical foreign policy’ and massive investment in public services.  For a while, people believed.  People felt the institutional sun on their up-turned faces.

But then, as these things inevitably do, the wheel began to turn.

It is hard to tell when precisely it was that the rot began to creep into cultural representations of social institutions but it was pretty obvious when the roof fell in.  Over the course of five short series, David Simon’s HBO series The Wire took a crowbar to the knees of pretty much every large social institution in America: The police, organised labour, politics, the media, schools and even criminal gangs.  Nobody escaped Simon’s forensic wrath.  According to The Wire, no institution could be trusted to deliver social change because institutions rely upon human agents who are invariably both too self-serving and too short sighted to act in the interests of society as a whole.

Change, we were told, simply could not come from above.

If The Wire’s brutal analysis constituted the crest of a wave of disillusionment then Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters (2002) was undeniably a distant but powerful off shore surge that contributed to the bathymetric sway.  The film focuses upon Ireland’s infamous Magdalene asylums, institutions run by the Catholic Church with parental consent that effectively pressed young women into slavery in order to ‘protect’ them and others from their fallen morality. Over the course of 119 minutes, The Magdalene Sisters wages a viciously effective assault on the notion that charitable institutions could ever be anything other than venues for misguided authoritarianism and the psychological and physical abuse of vulnerable people.

But what of the individual in all of this?

If it is unacceptable to suggest that the poor are simply lazy and that the vulnerable are simply weak, then surely it is just as unpalatable to suggest that the poor and vulnerable are nothing but the passive victims of misguided social institutions?  If may well be reductive and simplistic to place all of one’s faith for social renewal in large institutions but it is just as simplistic to paint these institutions as nothing more than part of an unjust and exploitative system.  People are individuals.  People have choice.  People have agency.  A more sophisticated representation of the ills of our society would allow for this.  It would acknowledge the responsibilities that we have to ourselves.

Peter Mullan’s latest film Neds (Non-educated Delinquents) attempts to examine both sides of the coin.  Set in 1970s Scotland, the film depicts a social landscape bristling with institutions that are quick to open their arms to working class children but just as quick to turn their backs on these same children if they fail to follow the (largely unwritten) rules.  However, while Mullan does a brilliant job of depicting the fickle and irrational nature of big institutions, his film’s real power comes from a willingness to recognise that we play a large part in our own downfall and salvation.

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