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Maybe, just maybe, “LANCE” was a meditation on existence

Yeah, it’s that guy again.

American TV audiences got another dose of former cyclist Lance Armstrong over the last two Sundays, and as people here (many of whom, like me, were original Lance fans) know well, it’s hardly a subject where we lacked information. Much of the reaction I have seen is simply “that guy again.”

The decision to produce a new four-hour documentary on ESPN called “LANCE” has been under withering attack on social media from long-time cycling fans who seem to regard it as somewhere between unnecessary and offensive. [I may have said a few things along those lines myself after watching the first half.] After all, the story of his dope-and-vitriol-fueled fall from grace unfolded before our eyes in real time, seemingly every day, forever. Then he told some of it to Oprah over two nights of TV. Then there was a film by Alex Gibney called The Armstrong Lie, which told it again. Then there was a movie called The Program, which I guess reenacted the saga, although I will probably never confirm this to myself. I’ll take their word for it.

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So why on Earth would someone think there was a big-TV special to be made from interviewing Armstrong at great, great length, along with his teammates, rivals, friends, family members, accusers, victims of his behavior, journalists, and even Pat Bloody McQuaid? I’m sure the filmmaker Marina Zenovich has her answer written down somewhere, though I can’t tell you what it is. I watched the entire program, and I have my own idea about why it ended up being worthwhile, possibly by accident.

But first, there are a few things it is not. While the film goes through his career and asks Armstrong and other key players to review what happened at each moment along the way and how they viewed it then versus now, the film is not, I don’t think, any sort of apology tour. It’s not for fans to reconsider their opinion of him or forgive him for his sporting sins. Maybe some degree of that is inevitable, but what could possibly be the point of this? Why would anyone want to hear an apology decades later, or to relitigate the exhaustively-litigated events of the past? If Armstrong tried to make it either of these things, it would have been an unwatchable catastrophe.

Thankfully, he didn’t. He did talk about his relevance. Armstrong insists he’s not seeking renewed relevance, but that he is relevant, as a factual matter. Maybe so — cancer survivorship has apparently changed for the better, thanks in part to the pioneering work of the Livestrong Foundation, even with his standing in the cancer community up for debate. His celebrity lives on, of course, for good or ill. He desires a place in cycling media and his podcast (kind of a pop culture interview thing) has gained him a toehold, as did some appearances on the NBC Tour de France broadcast last year.

But I don’t see that as the point of this film. Instead it seems to me that the film is for Lance, for him to talk to his current and former self about the events of his life. It’s not a film for us and Lance to talk to renew acquaintances, but for him to get better acquainted with himself.

To me, the absolute key moment in the entire thing is late in the film where he talks about the possible outcomes of the Nowitzky and USADA investigations, where Lance says he could have cooperated and confessed and maybe saved some of his sponsorships and his position with Livestrong, or at least done his penance and been welcomed back in the sport after a while as so many others eventually were. Or he could do what he always did, which is to almost violently oppose any perceived attack, which finally, this time, would push the matter to its eventual conclusion of total and absolute financial and reputational devastation. He went the latter route, lost all his sponsorships and personal ties, and now, looking back at his choices he maintains that he wouldn’t change a thing. Huh? Why, when that seems on the surface like the worst possible outcome? Because, he now says, for him personally, he needed to burn it all down, to be left completely on his own with nothing to protect, in order to get where he is now.

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And that place, apparently, is one of meaningful reflection. Armstrong seems like a guy who has done a lot of therapy, the kind people do when they finally hit bottom and no longer have anything to hang on to from their existence up to that point. Armstrong was just an abjectly awful person, and he never would have stopped being that guy if he still had anything left to preserve with his lies and attacks. But he no longer did, and having reached that point he was forced to examine himself and gain control over his behavior. He might be a changed person. He sure seems like it, as long as the subject isn’t Floyd Landis.

Now please, don’t hear what I didn’t say — that he’s now an OK guy or that he’s cured or redeemed or whatever. Only those close to him can say whether he’s really turned his life around, and the rest of us should probably not assume too much. I do believe that he finally located and turned off that switch that made him an utter monster. What is left once that part of him is no longer in play, who knows. I don’t. But with all the other stuff stripped away, he is present with himself throughout the film, in a way that feels like a break from his former existence.

So I do have an idea as to why this film was worth making. Like I said above, it’s for Lance to undergo this process, and for us to watch him do it. It’s a chance to observe a very public figure, from our cycling world no less, reckon with his own existence in a way that does not include us in the conversation. And that is why I found it compelling. It’s one little part of how we humans (sometimes) confront our reality by, as the Buddhists would say so well, being present and just looking at ourselves. And it’s Armstrong, a person who has so, so much to reckon with, whose life has been ultra-dramatic and so completely public at every turn. And a cyclist too, a central figure in a sport that pushes every emotion to its breaking point, all the time.

By coincidence, I got stuck indoors Saturday by heavy rains that washed out a ride I planned with my son, and having just discovered the Criterion Collection, a magnificent stash of A-list cinematic classics available to watch online, I popped on The Seventh Seal, because sometimes you just have to say “fuck it” and watch a Bergman film. [And I should add, 48 hours later there is a lot more to say “fuck it” about, but I don’t think I’m the right guy to go on that tangent here.]

If I have this right, The Seventh Seal is a reassessment of Christian themes by a crusading knight who has returned home to Sweden in the grip of the plague. The knight, Antonius Block, more or less concludes that these religious concepts aren’t of tremendous use at the end of one’s life; that God and the Devil aren’t coming by to explain the meaning of life; and that little to no explanation is available at all. Often categorized as an existentialist theme, the film’s exploration of nothingness leads the main character to accept the result and seek to squeeze in one good deed before Death, played I think by a reverse-aging Bjarne Riis (unconfirmed), comes for him at last. If I have this right, the film stands for the proposition that there is no great scorer, no deals you can make with existence, no redemptive opportunities. There is just existence, and what you do with it.

Armstrong’s behavior in “LANCE” reminds me of Antonius Block, who doesn’t seek answers about his life as a crusader or about the black death; he just decides to spend his last few hours doing something useful with them. Similarly, in “LANCE” Armstrong doesn’t argue for forgiveness or redemption. What came before happened and there’s nothing he can do to change that. He says he is sorry but does so in a way that makes it clear he knows it won’t reverse the pain he caused, that there is no way to change what happened. He can’t make people feel better about his having inflicted suffering on them in the past. All you get from “LANCE” is the chance to see Armstrong look back on his life from whatever newfound perspective he can muster and reckon with it.

*****

Please let me know what you think of the film, particularly if you watched it, although if you abstained from doing so your thoughts are still welcomed here. I don’t own any official interpretation of what it set out to do or accomplished, so if I’ve gone off the deep end here, I’m defo open to alternative views. Cheers.