Late last year, documentarian Alex Gibney (We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks) was in an unusual position. Three years earlier he'd filmed Lance Armstrong's fabled return from retirement to compete in the 2009 Tour de France. The unreleased project, called The Road Back, was conceived as a classic sports story – a former athlete returns to show the kids he still has it.
But nothing went according to plan. Not only did Armstrong come in third that year, he was again accused of doping. Investigations ensued, and new revelations surfaced daily. Meanwhile, Gibney waited for the controversy to pass. In December of 2012, six weeks before the cyclist appeared on Oprah, the filmmaker got a call from Armstrong. Lance opened up about his secrets and agreed to speak to Gibney one more time. The result is The Armstrong Lie, which premiered this week at the Toronto International Film Festival before a sold-out audience. Gibney spoke with Rolling Stone about getting trapped in the cyclist's tangled web, Armstrong's "tell" (touching his nose), and the "liars' party" he'd like to throw.
Do you think Armstrong doped in the 2009 Tour de France?
I think it's likely. I took one step back, but if you look at the data, it's pretty convincing. I gave Lance his opportunity to say what he had to say. But as [author] Bill Strickland says in the film, it's hard to believe. And I think that Lance is still adamant that he didn't. But it's hard to believe.
He says this actually in the film – he said, "I came back and I intended to ride clean." He didn't say, "I rode clean." He says, "I intended to ride clean." I find that very interesting. And I think he did intend to ride clean. But when it came to a choice between being on the podium or using that bag that he had for insurance . . . Because you can't just decide to dope at the last minute. When you blood dope, you have to prepare for it in advance.
So he had the bag in case?
I think he had the insurance bag.
When did you first think he was lying to you?
The suspicions of doping were there from the start, and I was certainly aware of them. But at some point, when the wealth of detail was revealed, I began to feel that I had been part of an elaborate con, that I was kind of a cover story. And so my role as a filmmaker was to have made this film where he could say, "I came back, won, and did it clean. And that proves that it was always good, right?" At that point, it all changed.
Why do you think he called you?
I think he'd lost control of his own story. He's a pretty careful curator of his own myth. And suddenly his story was no longer his own. And I think that he sensed that I knew I had material, which showed the lie-making process. And I think he wanted to come back in. I also think, to his credit, it was part of his way of making it right. I had spent a long time with him, and now he was gonna say, "OK."
I feel like there was even a line in the film where you said, "You owe me."
I said, more or less, "You owe me a moment to sit down and to talk on camera." And he ultimately made good on that. But then you're having to reckon with seeing everything in a completely different light.
Which interviews did you go back and see differently?
When you first sit down and do an interview, that's just how they talk. Then you go back in, you realize, "Oh, this is a different Lance. This is the Lance of the press conference. This is the Lance of the sound bite." And you begin to see how it works. I begin to start looking for markers, like when he goes to his nose. It's usually just before or just after he's told a lie.
What was the most surprising thing he admitted to you?
How much he was aware. I was interested in the level of detail he was giving me about how he doped, but also how much he was aware what kind of danger he was putting himself in by going back.
We know a little bit about his dad – his dad was absent.
He calls him a "sperm donor."
So there's anger there.
Big time. There's a lot of anger in Lance. And I think that's another aspect of his character – he's a fighter. His whole life has been, "Screw everybody else, I was never dealt a fair hand, fuck you all." The big problem for him was that it spilled over way beyond the sport as he became a bigger and bigger public figure, which had something to do with the sport, but also had a lot to do with the cancer.
Did you get the sense that – not to overly psychoanalyze him – but his anger comes from the absent father?
I think that's totally true. I think that motivator – plus over time, after having gone through the cancer experience – that gave him a noble cause. There's this great police phrase, "noble-cause corruption." It's about the cop who sees the mob guy but he can't get anywhere, so he plants a couple joints on the guy when he arrests him. He says, "Oh, you're carrying," right? And over time, you start to do more and more elaborate things. And you're thinking, "Well, I'm doing this for a good cause, so what's wrong with it?" And I think a lot of the cancer work that Lance did was like that: I'm doing so much good, so I'm entitled to be more than a little bit bad.
You've done these stories about liars before. Where does this fit in?
It was funny, because I didn't go into this story thinking that's what I was going to be doing, but I ended up going there anyway. And maybe it's because this is a person I'm familiar with.
You've gotten to know the world's greatest liars.
I was thinking of having a party. Wouldn't that be fun, to get Jack Abramoff, Eliot Spitzer, Lance Armstrong?
Do these guys all have something in common?
They do. One of the things I would posit that they have in common is this noble-cause corruption. There are psychologists who say we're hard-wired for moral mediocrity – that if we do something good, we feel like we're entitled to do something bad. It's sort of like going for a long jog on Sunday, coming home and having a lot of nachos and beer. You think, "Well, I deserve it." But you just obliterated all the good that you've done by taking the long jog. I think that idea of noble-cause corruption is simply universal.