As the UK is gripped by fresh enthusiasm for Le Tour, Channel 4 tonight broadcasts a timely reminder that, for every hero we cheer on along England's green hedgerows, the sport is still recovering from the machinations of its most charismatic and ruthless villain.
The second time around, a year later, Gibney was biting his tongue. Having picked up his cameras in good faith and followed the cyclist on what was meant to be his sporting comeback of 2009, Gibney was one of the millions who then sat still and watched while Armstrong unburdened himself – sort of – to Oprah. All Gibney would say then was, “I need to speak to him again.”
Gibney set out to make a film about Lance Armstrong's comeback climb, but it's become something else
A year later, he sounds bemused by the trail of events that mean his new film ‘The Armstrong Lie’ started out as one thing, the story of Armstrong – iconic cancer survivor, seven times Tour De France champion, charity fundraiser supreme, climbing his way back up the mountains for a final fairytale chapter - and has ended up becoming quite another, a qualified confession of duplicity, abuse of power, but also self-pity by one of the world’s biggest-ever sporting cheats.
“I don’t want to say let down,” is how Gibney describes his reaction to being caught up in the spokes of Armstrong’s machinations. “He looked me in the eye and lied to me, which is just wrong. Another sense, I felt that I had been used, that’s not normally what I like to think of myself as being done. I was pissed off.”
With his role at the centre of Armstrong’s unpeeling onion, Gibney – who has previously taken on the complexities of Julian Assange and the Catholic Church in his films - faces criticism that he is too close to call this one, particularly when he is seen happily cheering on the sporting giant, even, in one extraordinary piece, being comforted himself by the sportsman after a stage defeat meant his comeback tale was in ruins. “I fucked up your documentary,” says Armstrong wryly, almost apologetically, as the pair sit quietly together in a hotel room.
"He's his own myth maker" says Gibney of Armstrong
“He’s a great storyteller, constantly chronicling his own myth,” reflects Gibney now. “In a weird way, that defeat was poignant, he took on the responsibility of delivering these fairy tale endings, and he couldn’t deliver.”
It was Armstrong who got in touch with Gibney post-Oprah and apologised for what had gone before. “We began to talk then about how we might make it right, how his secrets would be revealed, if he would do that in my film, and I said I felt he owed it to me. He said he definitely would do that, but after the things he’d promised me before, I took it with a grain of salt.”
Armstrong did indeed sit down again with Gibney, which gives the film two very contrasting set-pieces, with one man – with identical body language and powers of expression – giving two opposite explanations of his prowess on the bike. Why is this so affecting, when ultimately it’s about a sportsman whose life will not ever cross paths with most of ours?
“Truth and lies seem to matter to us as human beings, in some fundamental way,” ponders Gibney. “Also power and abuse of power matters to us. This is not a story about doping, it’s about power, which is much more interesting.
"When he said he'd reveal his lies in my film, I took it with a pinch of salt"
“It’s also a story about a storyteller, who told us a fairy tale that we really wanted to believe. And millions of cancer survivors all over the world feel tremendous emotional draw to this story, and they drew tremendous hope from it, right? And Lance didn’t just say 'I’ve never tested positive', he said, 'I’m sorry for you who don’t dream big.'”
Gibney admits to liking Lance Armstrong “on a day to day basis, it doesn’t mean I admire him, and a professor in college once taught me to embrace those contradictions”.
This explains why he defends giving the cyclist the final word in the film, “but not necessarily a platform. The very last shot (which I won’t ruin), undercuts that, so we hear what Lance thinks, but it’s left to the viewer to make what he will of that, and whether it’s legitimate.”
The title of the film leaves no such ambiguity, and it turns out Gibney’s imparting of it to his subject was the last contact he had with him…
“I wrote him an email and he replied, ‘I don’t know whether to be more pissed off that the film’s going to be called The Armstrong Lie, or that you spelt peloton wrong.’
Gibney grins, remembering this final touch from a master manipulator. “Touché.”
'The Armstrong Lie' is on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm. Watch the trailer below...