Saturday, June 6, 2015

Preaching to the choir

Sometimes you watch a documentary to discover something new and different about a world you don't know or understand.

Other times, you watch just to quiver with righteous agreement.

(If you think I'm burying the lede, yes, this is my triumphant return to watching documentaries -- and I even picked it from the same library collection that I shunned in this post.)

The Armstrong Lie is the latter. It's not that I know so much about the world of cycling, the world of doping, the world of cancer survivors or the world of douchebags. But I do know from Armstrongs. After all, I'm one of them.

And Lance Armstrong has besmirched our good name. We used to have both Neil and Lance to be proud of. Now, Lance has almost entirely canceled Neil out, leaving us nobody. (I like the actress Samaire Armstrong pretty well, I guess. She's cute. And Curtis Armstrong was good as Booger. Wait, we also have Louis Armstrong. Never mind.)

Actually, I was never all that proud of Lance Armstrong, and that's why I'm so gratified to finally sit down and watch him get torn limb-from-limb over the course of an unnecessarily long 122 minutes. I consider it a badge of honor that I doubted the good-guyness of Lance Armstrong years before anyone else did, for reasons I won't really get into right now (though they are legitimate, especially now). In fact, I'm so proud of the early adoption of my hatred for Lance Armstrong, telling anyone who will listen about it, that you'd think I would have seen Alex Gibney's movie in the theater, instead of finally watching it on video nearly 20 months after its release.

So I'm the choir for this film in two senses: 1) I always doubted Armstrong for reasons that have nothing to do with sharing his last name, and 2) I share his last name, so he's been a special embarrassment to me, if you pretend for a minute that I care a lot about the sanctity of my last name and that him being a shithead actually has any kind of reverberating impact on my ancestors and heirs.

The funny thing, though I guess not surprising thing, is that the movie is actually pretty fair to Armstrong. This is Alex Gibney we're talking about. His thoroughness knows no bounds.

I emerged from The Armstrong Lie not hating Armstrong more, though there's certainly evidence presented in the film that would make a person hate him more. (But maybe not this person, since I already hated him plenty.) In fact, at times the film successfully convinces us that he's sort of a tragic figure -- while also being a shithead.

The prevalence of performance-enhancing drugs in my favorite sport, baseball, has forced me to consider just how harshly we should judge these professional athletes who are considered to be cheaters. Yes, they're cheating, there's no two ways about that. What's open to interpretation is how bad the cheating really is. The point is made -- not for the first time in this documentary, but in a way that connected with me -- that the playing field really kind of was even for Armstrong and his fellow riders, it just wasn't the playing field we thought it was. A bunch of super-charged athletes with recent transfusions of their own doped-up blood were out there, competing against each other. Course records may have really been the thing that suffered as a result of their dishonesty, not the other athletes themselves. "Everyone was doing it."

The film reminds us of something I've never lost sight of, which is why I forgive certain baseball players caught using steroids but not others. It's the vociferousness of the denial that carries the worst taste, the abject and utterly false righteousness that accompanies it. And this is why I didn't like Armstrong even before anything about steroids had been proven about him. He seemed offended by the very possibility that he might be guilty of something, that anyone would dare breathe a word of his potential guilt, when some evidence of his guilt already did exist. But I don't think I even knew about the accusations against him when I started hating him. This vociferous arrogance was what I hated, and I'd heard about it in connection to the way he treated people that had, in any small way, betrayed him, according to his own perspective on the topic. There was one specific story, though I'm not going to research the details now, that had something to do with how he treated a colleague whom he had once promised to help set up a bicycle shop (or something middling like that). The guy apparently did something Armstrong didn't like, and he squashed him, with a certain kind of malevolent glee.

That Lance Armstrong is in this film. He drops f-bombs on a couple occasions and certainly does not look like the image of the clean-cut, all-American hero that he cultivated so strenuously. He is openly flippant about people and a nearly sadistic disdain for them emerges repeatedly.

But I also think the long-term trajectory of Armstrong's story reveals other aspects of him that contextualize his behavior. I didn't know, for example, that he grew up without knowing his father, and that some of his striving was to fill that hole in his life. The other thing we seem to forget is that we think Armstrong was the start of all this stuff, like he was The First Cyclist and any shady behavior must have all started after his era of cycling began. Not true. The system was already ridiculously broken when he rode his first tour -- a tour in which he was definitely clean (and got destroyed). When he started out, he didn't know he was going to become LANCE ARMSTRONG, MORAL PARAGON. He was just a cyclist who opted into a system tainted by rampant cheating, and the only way to have any hope of making a name for yourself was to cheat. He would never have become LANCE ARMSTRONG at all if he didn't cheat. He is essentially being pilloried because he was the best and most successful cheater. Meanwhile, the cheaters who didn't have his talent and didn't cheat as well as he did are living lives of comparative anonymity. If they have not actually been forgiven by us, they have been passively forgiven in the sense that we don't even remember their names.

Armstrong has only himself to blame. But he also has the system to blame. And, you know, the fact that he had cancer. He might never have become LANCE ARMSTRONG if he hadn't had cancer. So in a sense, the thing that made him most heroic in the first place was the thing that guaranteed he was to have the swiftest and most punishing downfall.

I don't hate Armstrong a whole lot less, I guess -- his snide and dismissive arrogance is downright poisonous -- but after The Armstrong Lie I do understand him a little bit better. And I think his choices were not so uncomplicated as we might make them out to be.

It was his choice to defend his lie until the day he died -- or, as it turned out, until the day when the preponderance of evidence made it impossible to keep defending it. But at least he finally decided to right the ship and fall on his sword. Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, to take two examples from the baseball world, have still not done that, which is why they may never achieve the kind of peace toward which Armstrong has probably taken his first steps.

As for the Armstrong name ... well, it's doing alright, I was glad to discover this week.

A couple nights ago I heard my older son saying something about "the first person on the moon." It was part of his imagination play and therefore ordinarily would not confirm to any particular rules, but the specific phrasing caught my attention and I realized that someone must have told him about "Uncle Neil" (not really my uncle). I asked him, and it turned out that one of his teachers at school had been the one to tell him about Neil Armstrong and his genuinely heroic exploits in outer space. I felt a little rush of pride at that.

So yeah, the Armstrong name will be just fine, thank you very much.

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