In the fall of 2008, Alex Gibney rolled up in a rental car to the imposing metal gates in front of Lance Armstrong's home in Austin, Texas, rang the buzzer, and announced himself to the intercom. Incredibly, the gates swung right open to one of the last people you'd think Armstrong would want nosing around at the time.
By then Gibney had already sealed his reputation as a special brand of filmmaker – the crusading muckraker. Earlier that year, he'd won an Oscar for 'Taxi to the Dark Side,' which chronicled the story of an innocent Afghan taxi driver who died after being beaten by American soldiers at Bagram Airfield. And in 2005, his 'Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room' laid out a devastating summation of the financial crimes of Enron's executives.
Gibney's playbook should not have been a mystery to anyone with a Netflix account and a few hours to kill: exposing the villainy of those who for too long had been allowed to abuse their power. And here he was driving onto the $10 million estate of a guy who had been keeping a huge, not particularly well-hidden secret for more than a decade through personal intimidation, lawsuits, and brazen public relations. "Part of what he was doing," Gibney says, speculating on Armstrong's cooperation, "was showing everybody: Look, clean or dirty, I can beat anybody. Gibney does investigative films, so take a look in the cupboards, look in the closets, see if you can find anything."
Inside the gates, it became clear just how much was riding on this gambit. There was a Mediterranean cabana overlooking the pool, rows of cypress trees, and an 8,000-square-foot house designed by the architect who also did Armstrong's homes in Spain, New York, and the Bahamas, and his Texas ranch. A few miles away, Livestrong, the cancer charity Armstrong founded, was building sleek new headquarters to house its 70 employees, who hoped to build on the $300 million they'd already raised based on a version of the cyclist's story that didn't include steroids, EPO, or illegal blood transfusions.
Armstrong met Gibney in shorts and a T-shirt, and without his usual handlers. Gibney told the cyclist he wanted to trail him during his 2009 Tour de France comeback because he was fascinated by his will – to come back from cancer and win his first tour, to win six more, and then to now attempt to win another. Gibney didn't come on like a superfan; he told his subject that ignorance had never stopped him before. "I'm a good learner," he told Armstrong. "I can dig in. I knew nothing about mark-to-market accounting when I started the Enron film."
Unless Lance Armstrong marries Miley Cyrus, or launches a second career as a televangelist, Gibney's new film, 'The Armstrong Lie,' will be among the definitive documents of his career. Like other Gibney films, it's dispassionate and fair in the presentation of information but ultimately devastating about its subject. 'The Armstrong Lie' doesn't break much news, but in it Gibney assembles a case so exhaustive and damning that anyone who sees the cyclist as merely a liar will be forced to reclassify him as a sociopath. The ease with which Armstrong eviscerated anyone who challenged his lies – Greg LeMond was a drunk, masseuse Emma O'Reilly was a slut, investigative journalist Paul Kimmage hated cancer survivors – is undeniably chilling.
Armstrong could not have made his life more open to Gibney during the 2009 Tour – he allowed his daughters to be filmed and even encouraged Gibney to be there for his drug tests. At times, the director can be heard laughing with Armstrong like a chummy cohort, cheering him on during the Tour. "When you're hanging out with Lance, he's a good guy," Gibney says. "On a day-to-day basis, I like him! What's not to like?" But ultimately, no amount of camaraderie would distract Alex Gibney from making an Alex Gibney film.
Staging your own Gibney film festival can be emotionally draining. You find yourself toggling between anger and profound depression about how inexorably fucked-up the country is. Gibney knows his films can be demoralizing: "They are depressing because the system's rigged, and it's very hard to figure out how to unrig it. You know money rules. And it relates to the Armstrong movie, too – there is a view in our country that winning at all costs is okay. Fuck people on your way to the top. It's okay as long as you get to the top. Nobody likes a loser."
In the past few years, the 60-year-old Gibney has focused much of his indignation on what he sees as noble cause corruption, a police term that means that cops can forgive themselves pretty much any behavior if in the end the bad guys go to jail. "People who lie, particularly those who lie really big, can't do it effectively unless they feel that there's a righteous power behind what they're doing," Gibney says. "You're entitled to lie because the end justifies the means. Think of all the money you're raising for cancer. You wouldn't be able to do that if you were busted for doping, right? Lance can feel . . . righteous. To me, that's where it gets fucked-up."