My 'tour de Lance': Forthcoming Lance Armstrong documentary paints a complex picture

The Oscar-winning director and erstwhile Armstrong fan Alex Gibney explains why his behind-the-scenes documentary profile of the drug-cheat cyclist is far more complex than a total condemnation

As perhaps the most eagerly awaited documentary of 2014, it would be no surprise if The Armstrong Lie – and its Oscar-winning director – came down hard on the cyclist who doped his way to titles, adoration and fame. Yet speaking to The Independent, the film-maker Alex Gibney surprisingly mounts a defence, albeit a partial one, of the disgraced Tour  de France winner Lance Armstrong.

Gibney’s new feature, released in the UK this month, follows Armstrong during his comeback at the 2009 Tour de France. When he started the film, Gibney was a self-confessed Armstrong supporter.

Asked whether he now felt “shame” at his collusion with an athlete who admitted to drug taking after years of denial, Gibney replies: “Mild embarrassment might be more accurate. Look, I got caught up. I wanted to reflect that frankly in the overall film. That’s one of the reasons why I put myself in it.”

The director acknowledges that he was “inside the bubble, embedded in the Armstrong army” and that his initial perspective on the sportsman “was probably too rosy”.

Inevitably, there has been a huge backlash against Armstrong since he finally admitted to his doping guilt in an interview with Oprah Winfrey a year ago. The British director Stephen Frears is currently at work on a film about Armstrong based on Seven Deadly Sins, the book by the cyclist’s long-time critic David Walsh.

As the very title of his own documentary now makes clear, Gibney feels let down by Armstrong’s dishonesty. However, he has also calls for some perspective on the cyclists misdeeds.

Even in 2009, Gibney says, he was well aware of the allegations against Armstrong. His film was originally going to be called The Road Back. “That was a double title. It was a comeback title but it was also a way of saying all roads lead back to the past.” At the time, he thought Armstrong was trying to win the Tour de France “clean so that he could put an end to doubts about the past”.

Before Armstrong’s first Tour victory in 1999, the American cyclist was regarded as a good one-day racer who couldn’t ride in the mountains. He had been in several Tours prior to 1999 without shining. To some, this was obvious evidence that his sudden transformation was down to drugs. But, says Gibney, “that neglects one thing”.

“We now know even from Armstrong’s own admission that he was doping in ’94. Well, that’s five years before... If the dope was so good and all he had to do was dope to win, then he should have won in ’94.”

Gibney’s own theory, which Armstrong disputes, is that the cyclist had extra motivation after recovering from cancer. He was also paying very close attention to the advice of the doctor, Michele Ferrari. The doctor realised that Armstrong had extraordinarily strong lungs. Ferrari’s training regime put more pressure on the cyclist’s heart and lungs and encouraged the cyclist to change to a lower gear and pedal faster. Combined with the EPO – a hormone that increases red blood cell count – this made him unbeatable.

A still from the film 'The Armstrong Lie' A still from the film 'The Armstrong Lie'
Armstrong is reportedly sanguine about Gibney’s use of the word “lie” in the title of his film. The cyclist finally accepts that he did lie. The film-maker and the cyclist had a conversation recently in which Gibney said: “I can accept you’re the best of a bad era but the enormity of your lie and the way you used the power of the story to attack people telling the truth, I am going to be tough on that.”

The cyclist is currently mired in law suits. Gibney predicts that he will contest these in his usual feisty way. “That’s what Lance Armstrong knows how to do. He likes to fight. He is comfortable fighting.”

In the documentary, we see Armstrong at home with his children as doping inspectors turn up regularly at the door. “Look, whenever the camera is on, he is performing to some extent,” Gibney suggests. However, the director points out the poignancy in Armstrong having his blood taken by inspectors in front of his kids.

“The cancer thing is real,” the director says of Armstrong’s work with his cancer charity Livestrong. “I heard any number of stories where he reached out to people personally. I was in his presence a few times when he would get calls and say ‘Sorry, I’ve got to take this’ – because he would be advising someone who had a certain kind of cancer, helping them figure out what to do and giving them some sense of support. That was real!”

In his own film-making career, Gibney has made several documentaries about powerful men with feet of clay, leading businessmen and politicians, whistleblowers and Catholic priests among them.

“As someone says in the film, this is not a film about doping, it’s a film about power,” Gibney reflects. “A lot of the films I do are about people with power and how they abuse their power... it’s this psychology of people who think they are entitled to do bad because they are fundamentally on a mission that is good.”

Gibney doesn’t condemn Armstrong altogether. What disappoints him, though, is the way that cheating destroys the purity of sport. “I think that’s the sad part of it... you don’t want there to be doubt. You want to believe in a moment where an athlete extends themselves in some extraordinary way that transcends their physical capacity to do something magnificent. You want to believe. That’s tarnished by doping.”

Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Kitchen set: Yvette Fielding, Patricia Potter, Chesney Hawkes, Sarah Harding and Sheree Murphy
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans has been confirmed as the new host of Top Gear
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Top of the class: Iggy Azalea and the catchy ‘Fancy’
music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
    Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

    No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

    Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
    Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

    Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

    The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
    Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

    Something wicked?

    Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
    10 best sun creams for body

    10 best sun creams for body

    Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

    Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
    Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

    There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

    The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map