Interview: Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney
I wait to interview Alex Gibney at the Mayfair Hotel, armed with pages and pages of handwritten notes. Gibney holds a reputation for rigorous research, so I was especially keen to not let him down – or at least not be intimidated. The American filmmaker is in town to discuss The Armstrong Lie, his new documentary that delves into Lance Armstrong’s doping scandal. He speaks authoritatively and succinctly, but is friendly and welcoming. It’s understandable why his interviewees feel safe to speak their mind. However, on this occasion, I am the interviewer.
Gibney’s documentaries hold a stamp of quality: rigorously researched, informative and important. He received Best Documentary Oscar nominations for Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) and Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, and walked home with the trophy in 2007 with Taxi to the Dark Side. His other features include Casino Jack and the United States of Money, this year’s We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks and the forthcoming The Armstrong Lie.
Gibney began filming Lance Armstrong in 2009, covering a period where the cyclist pedalled against persistent doping allegations. However, the documentarian’s finished version was scuppered when Armstrong publicly confessed that his Tour de France titles were won with the help of drugs. Subsequently, the film was retitled The Armstrong Lie and follows a sharply differing narrative.
“The first film included elements of questions about doping,” he explains. “It wasn’t utterly absent of any sense of perspective or understanding about what had gone before. Even the title The Road Back was a kind of double meaning title. It was about a comeback. It was also about the road back to the past. I think I was honest in the ultimate film that I made, that I had fell into a trap of being an admiring fan. That was something I had to reckon with and be honest with.”
At a crucial point of The Armstrong Lie, a line appears: “It isn’t about doping; it’s about power.” I noticed at the press screening that suddenly several journalists were scribbling down the quotation, which then appeared in nearly every review I found – even my own.
“I don’t know which bits the reviewers are going to pick up on,” he insists. “But I know that that line was very important. Nothing’s more important really than that line because it says it all. I think a lot of people think that this story is about doping. If it’s about doping then it’s not as interesting because Lance doped but so did a lot of other people. It’s really about how Lance used and abused his power. His power as celebrity, and his power as a fiction maker – telling everybody that he hadn’t doped, when in fact he had.”
Armstrong may have been a hero to many, but Gibney calls the cyclist an antihero. That term “antihero” brings to mind popular figures of pop culture: Tony Soprano, Walter White and so on. Armstrong is fascinating from multiple angles, whether as a sports cheat, cancer survivor or talented fibber. The film even points out that many consider him to be the champion of a dirty era.
“One of the things about doping,” he explains, “is it engenders a sense of doubt in all of us, wondering if the achievements of the athlete are theirs alone or aided by some unseen force. I think doubt is also an issue with a lie. Can you really trust this person? A lot of the film is about trust and about belief, and the suspension of disbelief and how that comes crashing down. In a way – and I say this at the end of the film – I think we all want to believe in the beautiful lie more than the ugly truth.”
Gibney spent a considerable period on The Road Back, yet The Armstrong Lie premiered at this year’s Venice Film Festival – the same year as the widely publicised Oprah Winfrey interview. However, the director is happy with the finished version.
“I think it came to the point where I’m quite satisfied with the way the film is,” he says. “In fact, after the Toronto Film Festival, I went back and made a few tiny tweaks.” Like what? “They were very small. Mostly pauses here and there, or sitting on Lance’s face for a bit longer. Things that emphasise more the sense of wonder and ambiguity, rather than a kind of informational vibe.”
I ask if there is a “Timothy Treadwell being eaten by a bear” moment that closes the chapter. In other words, by crudely referencing Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, what was the bear that ate Lance Armstrong?
“I think the moment is really at the end of the film,” he responds, adding, “which is why I put it there. When Lance Armstrong boils the whole thing down and says, ‘Will there still be seven blank slots in those seven years?’ He remarks on the fact he won the Tour de France, and then we cut to these shots of him riding the bike in silence.
“I think that’s the Timothy Treadwell moment. It has a lot of meanings that I think and hope will reverberate with audiences.”The Armstrong Lie comes out at cinemas on 31 January 2014
Last updated: 18/04/2018 04:46:27