Lance (2020) ★★★ 1/2
Director: Marina Zenovich
Streaming on ESPN
I think I miss sports. I wouldn’t have guessed that I’d have this reaction to quarantine life, because I never deliberately watched sports or followed any particular team. But I guess I picked up on the ambient noise of sports, the dramas unfolding in the background. Armstrong’s story, for example, was one I knew, even though I don’t think I ever read an article about him or followed the Tour de France. In fact, I don’t think I understood how grueling an endurance event the Tour de France is until I watched this documentary. Now I’m in the weird position of feeling newly in awe of Armstrong’s athletic abilities while also understanding the full extent of his doping, lying, and bullying.
I was also in awe of the perfection of Armstrong’s life story. It’s as if Shakespeare wrote it from beyond the grave. Armstrong had such incredible highs and lows. There was a point in Armstrong’s life, a friend says, when he was so famous that he could have picked up the phone and called anyone in the world. He had millions of dollars in endorsements, living off of his reputation as a champion who miraculously survived a stage IV cancer diagnosis. And yet it was all built on lies. Armstrong made his deal with the devil early in his career; he began doping at 21 when he realized that many of his competitors were using steroids and EPO, an anti-anemia drug that increases oxygen in the blood. There is some speculation — by many people, including Armstrong himself — that doping, specifically, the use of growth hormones, caused him to develop testicular cancer. And yet Armstrong returned to performance-enhancing drugs after he recovered from cancer. So, the thing that made him great, almost killed him — but then the fact that he was almost killed makes him even more famous! I mean, the dramatic ironies keep piling up.
Why did Armstrong continue to dope after his cancer diagnosis? Director Marina Zenovich asks him this directly, and Armstrong’s non-answer is that he chose the “safer” doping options, like EPO. He clearly did not think he was doing anything wrong at the time — or at least, that he wasn’t any worse than anyone else. Zenovich lets the matter drop, which I found a little frustrating. There were several instances when I wished she would have pushed harder. And yet she did get an extraordinary amount of access to Armstrong, so I’m sure it was a balancing act between confronting Armstrong and getting footage. In addition to hours of interview, Armstrong allowed her to film in his home, to interview his children and finance. Presumably, he also encouraged his former teammates to participate, knowing full well that they wouldn’t have glowing things to say about him.
Throughout the documentary, Armstrong attempts to control the narrative to justify what he did and to throw pity parties for his lost fortune, but what gave me sympathy toward him were the glimpses of his childhood, which was clearly unhappy and abusive. His stepfather comes off as a villain, and what makes him most chilling is that he seems quite pleased himself and even takes credit for Armstrong’s success — in his mind, Armstrong’s athletic discipline was all due to the fact that he was “hard on” Lance when he was a child. The one person who Armstrong seems close to as an adult is Jan Ullrich, a Tour de France competitor who grew up in East Germany and whose childhood, like Armstrong’s, was very difficult. Ullrich was also caught for doping and later became an addict. Armstrong has stayed in touch with Ullrich over the years and even visited him in a rehab center in Germany. He couldn’t speak about it to Zenovich without sobbing. Those tears, unlike some of the other emotional moments in the interview, seemed to come from a genuinely remorseful place.
Would Armstrong have been as phenomenal an athlete if he hadn’t doped? We’ll never know and neither will he. If this questions haunts Armstrong, he doesn’t admit it — in fact, he says repeatedly that he has no regrets about his life, and that everything has led to this moment, where he is truly feeling relaxed and free. For someone whose lies had enormous consequences, not only for people directly connected to him, but for institutions like the Tour de France, the U.S. Postal Service, dozens of corporations, his charitable foundation, Livestrong, and all the journalists that he sued for defaming his character, that’s more of an ego trip than a Zen statement. By the end of the nearly three-and-a-half hours of interviews, I was weary of Armstrong but still quite fascinated by all the side characters who popped up, especially Floyd Landis, the teammate who was caught for doping and then, years later, unexpectedly blew the whistle on the culture of doping that existed within the U.S. team. His confession led everyone to confess — everyone except Armstrong, of course. This documentary shows Armstrong still struggling to take full responsibility for his actions. It seems unlikely that he ever will.