March 23, 2015

THE ARMSTRONG LIE and Noble Cause Corruption

Sometimes, we willingly engage in a "big lie": we see a situation for what it is, and are unwilling - or unable - to accept some more unpleasant truths. Those truths sometimes revolve around the idea of "noble cause corruption" - that people with noble causes sometimes engage in behaviors that can potentially short-circuit their efforts.

The documentary The Armstrong Lie takes on both - focusing on Lance Armstrong's 2009 Tour de France "comeback"....and reframing it within the context of his 2013 admission that he used performance-enhancing drugs.

Watching the film, I was impressed by director Alex Gibney's ability to focus on individual and situational complexities yet laying them out in a straightforward manner. His other films (including Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Client 9) have focused on moments in contemporary history where self-delusion and destructive behaviors often have great impact on the cultural fabric at large. The Armstrong Lie does one better - Gibney implicates himself (and readily admits this in the commentary).

The film is actually two films - an abortive 2009 documentary called The Road Back (which had been shelved due to then-present allegations) and a follow-up to Armstrong's infamous admission of "doping" to Oprah Winfrey. Exploring the various ways in which this story unfolded (and allowing the 2009 footage to provide slightly ironic commentary), The Armstrong Lie really makes the case that for some, self-mythologizing and self-delusion often work hand-in-hand. Some stories are built on a lie, but taking that lie to its ultimate extreme - where the lie takes on the tenor of truth - can be the greatest character lapse.

Gibney allows Armstrong and several others - critics and colleagues - to tell their own story. But the strength of The Armstrong Lie is that Gibney reiterates the basic deception at the heart of this story. Towards the end, Gibney provides a closing narration that helps solidify the major themes of the movie. He also provides some insight into Armstrong's character - that a man who came back from a horrendous health situation may make that part of his narrative. And that may not necessarily be the smartest move for an athlete.

Good documentaries do more than just describe a situation - they create a context and a narrative that reaffirms human truths. Regardless of your feelings about Armstrong's actions, The Armstrong Lie makes a strong case for greater skepticism and exploration, especially when the narrative mixes the personal with the professional.

A must-watch.

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