Perhaps the Vuelta isn’t your thing and you’re bored of the salavation over Bradley Wiggins at the Tour of Britain. Maybe you’re already nostalgic for the Tour de France, and fancy a bit of dabbling back into the history of the sport. You’re in luck. Cycling documentaries are a rare thing, but this year has seen a spawn of new features, driven mainly by the desire to cash in (surely not?) on the Lance Armstrong story. So for once, you have a choice – you can indulge in James Erskine’s documentary on Marco Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist or Alex Gibney’s The Armstrong Lie. A choice between the sports greatest pariah and one of its most revered and venerated athletes (choose which applies to which) might not seem that great, but hey, we beggars cant be choosers.
Neither film can really complain about having a lack of source material to work with. Both are now tragedies, with Pantani’s struggles and quasi-religious veneration by fans juxtaposed against his untimely death, whilst Armstrong’s tale has all the attributes for a Hollywood film. Indeed, this is the downfall of many stories about his downfall – they lapse into cliches and tell us what we already know. Finding an original angle for the standard “Lance Armstrong biopic” is thus much more interesting than simply rehashing the details.
Luckily, The Armstrong Lie manages just that. The backstory is that filmmaker Alex Gibney, who had previously made his name with documentaries on subjects such as Enron and Wikileaks, had planned to make a film about Armstrong’s comeback to the sport in 2009, after 4 years out. Gibney began shooting that film in the hope that Armstrong would win that year’s Tour to complete another remarkable comeback, which obviously ultimately didn’t happen, and shelved the documentary for a while until the infamous 2012 Oprah confession. At this point, an angry Gibney contacted Armstrong, asking for another interview to set the record straight, upset that he had been lied to. Armstrong agreed, and so the Armstrong Lie was born…
The Pantani film has a somewhat different genesis, being clearly based upon the excellent Matt Rendell book The Death of Marco Pantani. Novely, Rendell shows up at various parts to add some credibility to the whole thing, and the film is essentially a narrative of his book, albeit with most of the detail excised. This begs the question of who exactly the film is aimed at – with sponsorship from Rapha and Roleur, and focusing on a character that the man on the street would most probably not have a clue about, you’d think a film on Pantani would be slightly ‘hipster’ in that it would cater for the cycling community that no who he is, but the film instead seems to try and open it up to as wide an audience as possible. As a result, you’ll spend a great deal of the film rolling your eyes at details you already know that are presented as exciting and new as the film trudges through all the well known parts of Pantani’s life, with the standard use of Armstrong as a kind of of grounding for those unaware of the sport of cycling.
By contrast, The Armstrong Lie has a more interesting narrative thread – that of the 2009 Tour de France. To be honest, the whole idea of the film being about the “Lie” is somewhat pointless, as are many of the books and films seeking to offer “new insight” or “the story you didn’t know” – the story is still so tied up in legal ramifications and agendas that it’s hard to get much further in detail beyond the obvious. The Armstrong Lie is thus better viewed as a documentary about the 2009 Tour, and it is in this context that the film not only becomes somewhat more interesting, but also reveals the true meaning behind the title -the director’s seeming insinuation that “The Armstrong Lie” is that Lance rode the 2009 Tour clean. Rather than a career retrospective, the 2009 Tour is the focal point of the documentary, and is nicely situated, being as it is a crossroad moment in the Armstrong saga.
Gibney has some neat ideas once he gets the contextualisation of his piece out of the way. He is part of the vanguard of bike camera technology, having placed cameras on the bikes of key Astana personnel to capture the racing a la the crew of Chasing Legends in the same race, plus he has interviews with the Andreu’s, David Walsh, Saint Vaughters and, most impressively, Michele Ferrari, to really flesh out his tale. And the tale he has to tell is of the slow realisation of Armstrong that he was not going to win the 2009 Tour, a belief that it seems, from the interviews spliced throughout the timeline, Lance really thought was possible. The psychological battle with Contador and the real allegiance of Johan Bruyneel is also revealed through the use of in car cameras, and I shan’t spoil that part for you. But all in all, the film has a strong look and is rich in its narrative drive and detail, rarely flagging or slowing up in its telling.
By contrast, the Pantani film obviously couldn’t make use of contemporary film given Pantani died 10 years ago, and so has to make use of an actor to elucidate some of the scenes. Unfortunately, these all have the air of a very bad Crimewatch reconstruction, with washed out colours, food colouring as blood, massive needles in suspicious suitcases and most criminally of all, the guy playing Pantani seeming to be about 6 foot 6. Any air of wonder or drama is thus lost through the repetition of these laborious reconstructions, which seem to be there to pad out the relatively small amount of actual archive footage, which surely would have been the place to go for this sort of film. Speaking of padding out, the film is a mere 96 minutes – a tiddler compared to today’s Hollywood efforts – yet feels so much longer. There is no pace to the film, and it seems the director filmed some pieces of road with a camera on his bike and decided to buffer the film out with them – the same shot of bike wheels spinning or of the descent of a mildly snaking roading will drive you mad when it reappears for the nth time. The Pantani film thus loses much of the interest the Armstrong Lie generates simply through its lack of detail and seeming obsession with spinning out its overly simplistic idea of the story with overly long establishing shots of mountains.
It’s a real shame that the Pantani film is so underdeveloped, as the story is so rich,vibrant and ultimately enthralling that it deserves much better then this. It arguably follows the rule of Hollywood – the book is somewhat better than the film, which is a lowest common denominator, too broad and unfocused approach to a subject and sport where detail is what fans revel in(witness the uproar over the photo released to promote the Ben Foster starring biopic on Armstrong, with its incorrect bike components). The Armstrong Lie is much more entertaining and leaves you much more satisfied that it has answered it’s own questions, because comment and opinion is actually passed. Oddly, I’m not sure the intended audience will leave the Pantani film knowing very much more about Pantani then when they came in, but they’ll come out of the Armstrong Lie, with all its focus on the suffering and mental state of its star, wondering if the same approach should not have been used in the previous film.
Marco Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist **
The Armstrong Lie ****