Matt Pais, @mattpais
RedEye movie critic
November 13, 2013
When director Alex Gibney was making an uplifting movie about Lance Armstrong’s 2009 comeback—before the confirmation of rumors about the champion cyclist’s doping and before Gibney remade the film into “The Armstrong Lie,” opening Friday—his subject lied to his face. Have other subjects tried to dupe the Oscar-winning documentarian (“Taxi to the Dark Side”)?
“Sure. I think they all do,” says the 60-year-old filmmaker (“Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer,” “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks”) with a laugh. “I think that everybody tells stories in ways that they want to hear them … Most people don’t tell you, ‘I’m going to tell you my story in the way that’s most critical of my role.’ They do just the opposite.”
Fortunately, Gibney shelved much of his original project—he says he “dodged a bullet” in learning the truth before releasing his less-investigative film—and got the disgraced Armstrong to sit down with him for another interview in early 2013, immediately following the athlete’s chat with Oprah. At the Peninsula Hotel, Gibney, whose father used to live in Chicago and, yes, did consider calling his movie “LieStrong,” compared some of his movies' controversial figures, addressed whether they want to see movies about themselves and, asked about his film “Catching Hell,” advocated for Chicago to hold a “Steve Bartman Day.”
Who made the biggest contribution to society: “Eliot Spitzer. I think he showed what you can do when you forcefully engage the powerful. When you go toe-to-toe with ‘em and really hold them to account.” [Ed. note: After our interview, Gibney notes that he was tempted to say Assange. “But he wasn’t really the leaker. People forget that. He was the publisher. And in that sense doesn’t deserve as much credit as he would like to take for himself. He thinks he’s changed the world. People forget [Bradley] Manning was the one who took the risk. Manning was the one who leaked the documents. Assange was the guy who was the publisher, and there’s a difference there. He’s more like a journalist, and he put himself in jail. So I was tempted to say Assange, but I didn’t. Armstrong, obviously he affected a lot of cancer survivors. But I’m afraid all that’s been undone. That’s where I would give Assange more credit. The publication of WikiLeaks is still very important.”]
Who will have the hardest time redeeming himself: “Lance Armstrong, and the reason is he sold a lie that was so big that he implicated so many people and made people believe so fervently, and he went after people much weaker than he in such a brutal fashion that people will find that very hard to forgive.”
Most surprising scandal: “Eliot Spitzer. More than Lance because at least in my case I sensed that in the world of sports some kind of doping had probably gone on in those tours. Particularly if you look at all the people who shared the podium with him, and they had been doping. So something had gone on there. With Eliot Spitzer, he was such a paragon of probity and he made such a big deal about being Mr. Goody-Two-Shoes and had gone after other people and prosecuted escort services in the past. So to see that he was running around late trying to do detailed ditching of his security services in order to meet up with high-priced escorts and negotiating with a 22-year-old madam, that was a shock.”
Toughest documentary to make: “’We Steal Secrets.’ The reason was that it just had an element of breadth, and also it was about a world that was almost intensely in the imagination and played itself out online rather than in any action fashion. Lance Armstrong took the biggest turn, but it was always a film about a sport. Eliot Spitzer was always about law and order. ‘We Steal Secrets’ is about a gray area, and it’s about a gray area where people are communicating online via text. And to penetrate that world was very difficult to do.”
The movie that gets viewers most fired up: “Of those three? Probably ‘The Armstrong Lie.’ I think there is an intensity of anger toward Armstrong that is really extreme. You go around the country now and talk to people and they are still inflamed because they feel that he transgressed against their very best instincts. That is to say they gave him all the credit in the world for what he was doing with cancer survivors and in fact that ended up being part of his elaborate deception.”
Who he’d most want to get a beer with: “That’s a tough one. Not Julian Assange. I would tell you that both Lance Armstrong and Eliot Spitzer are fun to have a beer with … I didn’t have a beer with [Assange]; I had a tea with him. And then I had a six-hour sit-down interview where we were negotiating over whether or not he would sit down. I had to beg him for 30-60 seconds to go to the bathroom so I could just take a break, and I would come back in and he could continue the sentence he had paused while I was asking for a break.”
Who he’d be most nervous to see again: “I don’t know that I would be nervous with any of those three guys. I’m always interested in that. I’d be interested in meeting Assange. Except that if he started to make a speech, I would probably run out of the room screaming.”
It’s no secret that everyone (at least in terms of athletes and politicians) thinks they won’t get caught when they do something wrong. What are the chances that people in power will ever look at history and say, “Everyone gets caught eventually; I’m just not going to do this.”
It seems given what we know so far that the chances of that are pretty slim. [Laughs] There seems to be something that goes on in the human mind that imagines that they’ll get away with it; that we’ll all get away with it. That if we just do it and we do it smart nothing will happen. It is amazing, that process. How many movies have we seen where you hear the dastardly villain say, “I’ve committed the perfect crime”?
And they get caught 99 percent of the time.
Many of your movies touch on that aspect as well. If I were a professional athlete, I’d look at Lance or Ryan Braun or any of these people and say, “They know! You can’t get away with it, even if you do for a few years.” But is there some of that thinking that’s like, “Well, even if you get caught, if you can be a champion for a few years it’s worth it to an extent”?
I don’t think they think of it that way. Lance clearly says in the film, “I certainly thought I would never get caught.” That’s why he did it. I don’t think it ever happens all at once. You don’t jump in with both feet. You don’t jump in and say, “OK, I’m going to start doping and then I’m going to be a champion and it’s all going to work out great.” It’s usually a gradual process. “Everybody around me is doing it. Unless I do it, I’m going to fall further and further behind, so I’ll do a little bit and I’ll do a little bit.” It’s almost always that kind of step-by-step process. It never happens big. That’s how people’s minds allow themselves to do it.
Mind you, we say everybody always gets caught. I don’t think that’s really true. I think there are a lot of people on Wall Street who never got caught. I think there are probably a lot of people in professional sports who never got caught. Or who managed to say, “Well, even though I might have done it, it doesn’t really matter.” That’s the situation that Lance is in. We forget; it wasn’t like when he went on Oprah, suddenly all was revealed and we were all shocked because there had never been any allegations of doping before. The fact was for a long time from 1999, even then there were allegations of doping. But everybody wanted to believe that Lance was clean, so we all agreed that because there was no proof we should just say he was clean.
Have you ever had a nightmare about actually making and releasing the original Armstrong film and you found out the truth later, like, “Oops”?
[Laughs] “Whoops, it got out of the cutting room. I sent the wrong one to the laboratory?” [Laughs] The truth is, and I don’t want to sound defensive when I say this, but the truth is the original film was naïve and not as tough as it needed to be given how things change. But it also wasn’t clueless. There was a pretty big section about doping in that film and the implication that Armstrong was coming back to try to resolve those questions in the past, like if he could show everybody he was clean in 2009 maybe they would forget about the past. So it was there. But did I dodge a bullet in terms of that film not coming out? Yeah.
Do you feel either at the time or looking back on it now, that other subjects have tried to dupe you?
Sure. I think they all do. [Laughs] I’m serious. I think that everybody tells stories in ways that they want to hear them. So generally speaking most people don’t tell you, “I’m going to tell you my story in the way that’s most critical of my role.” They do just the opposite. Sometimes you get really thoughtful people who have been through some kind of trauma and are willing to reflect on where they’ve gone wrong. That’s rare. Very often people are telling their versions of the story. I think it’s become even more problematic today where we live in a world of such press agentry. That everything is spin. The idea is you go in, you tell your story forcefully and you stick to that story and reflection is not permitted. And in fact one of the reasons I think reflection is not permitted or not encouraged is because the moment somebody looks reflective or says, “I might have made a mistake way back then,” somebody pounces: “He said he made a mistake! Everything is bull[bleep] now!” Well, it seems to me that we should allow for a world in which people can make mistakes and then learn from their mistakes.
The first time you sat down with Lance, did you expect honesty or did you go in with a certain skepticism?
I went in with a certain skepticism. Like I said, I had certainly read about the allegations of doping. But I think where Lance hooked me was in my belief that he was racing clean in 2009. I didn’t just take Lance’s word for it; I was asking other people who had hung around him for a long time, who were saying, “Yeah, I’ve been asking questions too, and where I had rumors before, this year everybody says no.”
And his performance had fallen off …
Yeah, and later on he was posting his own blood values in the tour of Italy which takes place just before the Tour de France. Everybody seemed to agree that, based on those blood values, he seemed to be racing clean.
If someone is identified as a liar and they’ve been doing it for a long time and, as it seems in this case, only eventually told some or all of the truth when they had no other choice, how can they not be seen as a liar anymore?
Well I think it’s hard. That’s Lance Armstrong’s problem now. Like he says, he’s adamant that he did not dope in 2009. Still.
Which you don’t believe and many others don’t either.
Based on what I’ve been through and the evidence I’ve seen I find it very hard to believe. I can’t say it’s impossible because we don’t know. We don’t have the tangible proof, but like I said I find it very hard to believe.
Do you think that takes away any appreciation that someone can have for him finally coming clean about the other stuff? Does the fact that he still even has a certain appearance of being deceptive make you look at the other stuff and say, “Big deal, he’s not willing to go the full distance and say, ‘I’m going to be a transparent, honest person’”?
I think in a way that’s why he didn’t get the kind of support that he was expecting to get after coming clean on Oprah because there was perception after that initial phase of the interview, which is the best part, where he’s just answering those yes and no questions that he’s still trying to split hairs. He’s still trying to shade the truth, and I think people expected him to come clean, to come completely clean. He’s probably using that as a bargaining chip or he’s nervous about future legal proceedings or he’s trying to protect pals who protected him and possibly lied for him in the past. All that may be true, but from our perspective I think we expected him to come clean, completely clean because that’s the only way you can begin to start to trust somebody again is to believe that they’re telling you the truth and nothing but the truth.
You said that when you’re trying to get someone’s story, everyone lies to the extent that they tell their story the way they want to tell it. Do you look back at the films you’ve made and things that people said that you feel like you were duped to any degree, even if you just feel like you wish you had followed up on something more?
Hmm. That’s a really good question. I will tell you that when I was making “Taxi To the Dark Side,” the film for which I won the Oscar, there was a period where—it was a film about a brutal murder in an American prison in Bagram in Afghanistan by guards and interrogators [of] this young taxicab driver. But having met them I became so--I liked them so much; they were young kids, and some of them were pretty big physically, but they were quite innocent and wounded in some fundamental sense. And in making that film I realized I gave them so much credit for that that I kind of let them off the hook in terms of what they had done. I put that all on their higher-ups. I realized in some fundamental way that I had been not fooled but allowed myself because of my sympathy for them not to hold them to account for what it was that they had done. And that taught me a much bigger lesson about some of this stuff. You can meet somebody and like them and think they’re a nice guy but still have to be willing to hold those folks to account.
So in the case of those guards, I actually went back in and put in some material that was rather brutal detail about what they had done to this poor kid. Because they were coming off almost too sympathetic, and I felt that that needed to be balanced. We had to reckon with the violence of what they themselves had done. And I think about that a lot with [Armstrong, Spitzer and Assange]. That is to say, there’s a lot about each of them to admire frankly or be impressed by, and yet for their actions I think you have to be willing to hold them to account.
Lance doesn’t want to see this movie. Have your other subjects wanted to?
Spitzer wanted to see it immediately. Julian wanted to denounce it before he saw it. [Laughs] And did so! He got an audiotape recording and issued an annotated transcript of the film which, because it was an audiotape recording, missed fully a third of the movie which were the silent chats by Bradley Manning. Lance Armstrong may be the one who doesn’t watch, which would be interesting because he has a very particular idea about how his myth is curated. Lance always says he doesn’t read the books about him. I find that hard to believe because we know for a fact that Lance would reach out to journalists in extremely small towns in America if they wrote a bad word about him. I think one of the things that unites these three people is they all have extremely narcissistic tendencies. They live in worlds in which they think a lot about who they are and how they are represented.
Do you feel more attuned to people’s dishonesty now? Is that something you learned from this experience?
I think I was always attuned to people’s dishonesty, but what I learned [from] this film was I feel I need to be more attuned to how I get easily convinced by people and want to give them maybe too much credit. You put yourself in an emotional situation, which I think is a good thing. You don’t want to be so cynical; you don’t want to be in a position where you say, “Oh man, it’s so hard when you get jilted. I’m never going to fall in love again.” You want to be able to be vulnerable, but at the same time I allowed myself in making the first film to be convinced of things that I probably shouldn’t have allowed myself to be convinced of.
I admit I still haven’t seen all of “Catching Hell.” If you could sit down with Steve Bartman, what would you want to ask him?
I guess I would want to ask him why he was so adamant about wanting to remain anonymous. I find it the most interesting and intriguing thing about him. We know he was, by all accounts still is, a dyed in the wool Cubs fan. But in this age when we live in a cult of celebrity and when him standing up might have put an end to all the rancor, why did he insist on remaining so anonymous? I can appreciate that he was scared. Because people were throwing rocks at him. Maybe if people had tackled him they might have hurt him pretty bad. So I can appreciate that. But I guess I’d want to know in the years since why has he felt so strongly about wanting to remain anonymous.
Especially when it could have been anyone, and it was not his fault.
I think it could have been anyone, and it was certainly not his fault. And we know how many people were reaching for that foul ball.
It happens at every game.
Every game. And the idea that somehow he tempted the fates or brought on a curse or that it’s Bartman’s fault is just insane. It just goes against everything you know about sports. So you can’t blame Bartman, but by all accounts--and I was talking to a few people earlier in Chicago today--people still do. You bring up the name Steve Bartman, and it’s usually “expletive deleted.” Why is that? I think or I hope that the Cubs hold a Steve Bartman day, and I think a Steve Bartman day should happen whether Bartman comes or not. I hope he comes, but if he doesn’t come, hold it anyway. And everybody should dress up like Steve Bartman.
Do you think he would come forward after the Cubs win the World Series?
He might. That’s what it took for Bill Buckner to come forward, which was part of the film “Catching Hell.” Suddenly the pressure was off the city. It’s like, “Oh, it’s not that festering wound.” But that’s a little unfair too. I think in a way Chicago can be better than Boston. They can have a Steve Bartman day before they win the World Series. It’s easier to have it after you win the World Series. It’s tougher to do beforehand.
That would be an interesting event. I wonder how that would go.
Right. I wonder how many people would turn up and how many people would be willing to put themselves in the place of Steve Bartman.
Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U
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