Two compelling documentaries about famed competitive cyclists and the corrupted sport that chewed them up.
I’m “biast” (con): not at all a fan of competitive cycling
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
I know even less about competitive cycling than I know about the other sports I don’t like and don’t follow. This did not prevent me from enjoying immensely Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist, a documentary biography of the celebrated Italian cyclist Marco Pantani, a man I had never heard of until I received an invitation to a screening of this film. Filmmaker James Erskine gives even the most profoundly uninitiated viewer (such as me) plenty of opportunities to understand, cheer for, and mourn the man whose death, we learn, was greeted with a Princess Diana-level of public grief in his native country when he died at age 35 from acute cocaine poisoning in 2004.
Pantani had been disgraced after numerous doping allegations, expulsions from the sport, and attempted comebacks, and Erskine is extremely sympathetic to an athlete who, it would appear, was perhaps not personally and psychologically geared for a sport that was becoming very scientific — all about red blood cell counts and performance-enhancing tricks and drugs — just as he entered it as a cyclist who ran on instinct and pulled off feats in races that seemed to defy logic (like waiting for mountainous climbs to attempt to overtake other riders, and succeeding). Astonishingly, he came back from a horrific collision with an automobile in an Italian race in 1995 — the police hadn’t closed the road properly! — to win both the Tour de France and the equally grueling Giro d’Italia in the same year, 1998, something no one else has done since.
Fans loved the guy, but sponsors didn’t, for various reasons detailed here, and there are hints here that some of those doping allegations may have been setups by the big money that would have been happy to see him gone. His great tragedy appears to have been being all about the sport in a sport that is, nowadays, like so many of them, all about the money.
One of Pantani’s frequent opponents was, of course, the now notorious American cyclist Lance Armstrong, and the magnificent The Armstrong Lie — another brilliant documentary from the ever-incisive Alex Gibney (Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God) — is even more suited to those who couldn’t care less about athletics. Because it’s not about cycling but the power of celebrity and the willingness of fans and the culture at large to overlook obvious lies and wrongdoing in the face of a really great, really inspiring public story.
See, Gibney set out in 2009 to make a film about Armstrong’s unretirement from cycling, after a remarkably winning career — seven consecutive Tour de France wins! — after he recovered from numerous invasive cancers. Armstrong had repeatedly denied rumors that illegal doping had fueled those wins… but in 2012 he was kicked out of the sport for life for using illegal performance-enhancing drugs, and in 2013, just hours after Armstrong gave a confessional interview to Oprah Winfrey in which he admitting doping, he talked to Gibney again. With his usual honest bluntness, Gibney interweaves his 2013 interview with his 2009 footage — some of which can now be seen in a new light — with interviews with former friends and colleagues whom Armstrong used his celebrity power to ruin in order to keep his secret. Gibney doesn’t pretend that he is not part of the story himself, or that he wasn’t a gung-ho fan of Armstrong’s, which bolsters his own argument about how we’re happy to be lied to if we like what we’re hearing.
As a portrait, this is more generous than it might have been, but it’s not at all flattering, and we are left with the spectacle of an arrogant man who would do whatever it took to stay on top. Gibney wonders, over the 2009 footage, whether Armstrong was staging his comeback then to “stick it to his critics,” but I wonder if Armstrong wanted to get caught and called out on his doping. After all, in our celebrity-driven culture, there’s not much someone like Armstrong can do wrong… except to fall out of the spotlight. And there he was, back in it again. And still.
‘The Armstrong Lie’ viewed during the 57th BFI London Film Festival