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Like a wiry groundhog in biking shorts, Lance Armstrong likes to periodically poke his head out of his hole, offer a few utterances of the truth and then retreat for another six months (or several years) of obfuscation or delusion.
It’s perhaps the most underrated upside of having spent decades lying to absolutely everybody about nearly everything: that you can similarly turn the truth-telling process into a multiyear adventure.
The latest chapter in Lance Armstrong’s confessional journey is Marina Zenovich’s Lance, premiering at Sundance ahead of its ESPN debut. Lance is surely the most in-depth piece of Armstrong’s Tour de Redemption, but it doesn’t feel close to definitive. It should be called “Lance Right Now.”
As merely the next step in a path that has included Alex Gibney’s superb The Armstrong Lie, a teary Oprah interview and a dozen smaller, incremental mea culpas, Zenovich’s doc probably slots into a nebulous middle ground as too lengthy and involved for people who didn’t previously care about Lance Armstrong and too repetitive and familiar for anybody paying attention. For that demo, of which I’m squarely a part, Lance is just the latest reminder of how robotic and over-rehearsed Armstrong generally comes across and how the things that get his hackles up are perhaps the only changes.
Around half of Lance is a fairly basic biographical recap, elevated slightly by an impressive group of talking heads, including many of Armstrong’s cycling teammates, his mother and an assortment of cycling officials, journalists and other hangers-on. There’s nothing new in this trip from youthful triathlete to cycling champion to international disgrace, and even the candor from various corners about the overall corruption and drug saturation in cycling in the ’90s and ’00s is the stuff of various acclaimed documentaries — Icarus comes most immediately to mind — and at least one prior 30 for 30. You may also have heard previously about Armstrong’s fight with cancer and the birth and explosion of his foundation and its ubiquitous “Live Strong” bracelets.
I don’t know if I would have cut all of that stuff out entirely, and since Lance isn’t told linearly, it wouldn’t have been possible anyway. Where Lance is actually interesting is as an episodic “Where’s Lance Armstrong’s Mind at Today?” installment, captured in both lengthy sit-downs and some travels with Armstrong. He’s happy to admit to basically all of the doping he denied over two decades and if you chafed at the emotion of his Oprah confession, you’ll probably appreciate that he’s past shame here. He definitely regrets the way he treated several people in his sphere during those days of prevarication, but mostly in nebulous terms since if there’s anything that Lance Armstrong has been doing for the past few years, it’s getting sued. Every word he says in the documentary feels either lawyered to death or endlessly rehearsed over countless solitary bike rides.
He leaves plenty of room for whatever the next Lance Armstrong documentary happens to be, because he’s still halfway between victimhood and martyrdom in his own mind. The documentary begins with Armstrong expressing amazement at how many years passed before anybody approached him in the street and yelled, “Fuck you!” He sounds almost disappointed and you can tell why as the documentary follows him to fundraisers and speaking engagements where boos would be warranted. But then later, he rants about why he and German cyclist Jan Ullrich have been disproportionately stigmatized compared with somebody like former pal George Hincapie; it’s one of those, “If you don’t get how this is different, I’m not sure how to explain it to you, Lance” moments.
Check back in five years and maybe Armstrong will have a better understanding. Maybe his kids, interviewed and generally evasive, will have enough distance for candor. Maybe Armstrong will eventually have a real answer to Betsy “Wife of Cyclist Frankie” Andreu’s long-standing accusations about a hospital confession. Maybe he’ll have found something new and substantive to say about his Tour de France successor in both yellow jersey and disgrace Floyd Landis, whose presence in this doc continues to suggest that he’s probably at a better and more settled personal place than Armstrong. There’s enough uncertainty from Armstrong that you feel him planting seeds for a sequel as Zenovich is trying to close the case.
Zenovich pushes Armstrong, though she has to know as well as anybody when he’s hedging. Her professional modus operandi isn’t really to be an apologist for disgraced powerful men, but that’s an accusation that has been thrown after films like Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, which may be why several early talking heads worry that this documentary might let Armstrong off the hook. It doesn’t, but that’s at least as much because Armstrong remains as cocky and confident as ever and is completely unable to avoid phrasing that makes him sound like a victim of fate and circumstance. Zenovich falls into the camp that says that as bad as his lies might have been, they don’t nullify the positive impact of the Lance Armstrong Foundation and the doc is probably persuasive on that front.
Ultimately, Lance is interesting mostly as the latest shading on things Lance Armstrong has said before and a prelude to whatever he’ll say next time he emerges from his hole.
Company: ESPN Films
Director: Marina Zenovich
Producers: Marina Zenovich and P.G. Morgan
Editor: Allan Duso
Cinematographer: Nick Higgins
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Special Events)
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