In ESPN’s hit documentary series The Last Dance, NBA legend Michael Jordan is described as “the ultimate sports alpha male.” True, perhaps. But he faces some competition for that title from the subject of another ESPN documentary, Lance Armstrong.
“To me, Lance was very alpha,” observes director Marina Zenovich, who spent two years off and on with Armstrong for her film LANCE. Comparing Jordan and Armstrong, she marvels, “You’re talking about people from another planet. They’re not normal humans and they are incredibly strong and ferocious and willful and amazing athletes.”
Jordan describes his mentality as “go out and win at any cost,” but he meant that within the confines of the rules. Armstrong, on the other hand…well, the cyclist steered his bike down a different path.
Zenovich’s film, which is now contending for Emmy nominations, comes seven years after Armstrong finally admitted what he had long vociferously denied—that he used performance enhancing drugs (PED) en route to winning an unprecedented seven consecutive Tour de France titles. He had little choice but to ‘fess up after a United States Anti-Doping Agency investigation found he had systematically cheated the system, taking multiple banned substances including human growth hormone, testosterone and EPO (Erythropoietin).
The revelations cost Armstrong all of his Tour victories, millions of dollars in endorsements and something even more precious—the admiration of countless people worldwide who respected him not only as a great champion but as a hero who had survived metastatic testicular cancer.
“If you’re looking for fascinating characters to try to understand, Lance Armstrong is a great one,” Zenovich notes. “I was just interested in seeing the man and what he was doing and how he was coming to terms with what he had done.”
Anyone looking for a contrite Armstrong will not find one in LANCE. In sit-down interviews with Zenovich, he did not walk back his previous doping confession, but neither was he exactly sorrowful. Call him matter of fact.
“Nobody dopes and is honest,” Armstrong tells Zenovich in the documentary. “The only way you can dope and be honest is if nobody ever asks you, which is not realistic. The second somebody asks you, you lie. It might be one lie because you answer it once. Or in my case it might be 10,000 lies because you answer it 10,000 times.”
What compelled Armstrong to use performance enhancing drugs, despite the possible risk to his health? Fellow cyclists told the director if Lance hadn’t used PED, even as gifted an athlete and ferocious competitor as he was, Armstrong would have been relegated to the back of the peloton.
“Based on the interviews I did not just with Lance but others at that crème de la crème level you had to dope at that time,” Zenovich comments. “It wasn’t just Lance Armstrong, [but] Lance took it to a new level.”
At the beginning of the film Zenovich acknowledges the risk of expecting the truth from a man who for years not only presented himself falsely but brutally attacked anyone who dared speak about what he was doing.
“Someone said to me, ‘What is it like to interview someone who is known to lie so much?’ And it’s like I went in knowing that, but I always try to see the best in people, and assume they’re going to tell me the truth,” Zenovich tells Deadline. “So am I a sucker because of that? I don’t think so. I just think I’m trying to give him the benefit of the doubt…I love how direct he is, but he doesn’t show all his cards. So that’s what made it challenging and interesting and fun.”
The Last Dance offers hints at what fueled Jordan’s incredible competitive fire—Jordan himself says it came partly out of a rivalry with his brother Larry, also a talented basketball player. Rage seemed to be the propellent pushing Armstrong—rage at a stepfather who proudly describes in LANCE how he rode his stepson hard.
“Lance would not be the champion he is today without me,” Terry Armstrong declares. “I drove him like an animal. That’s the only thing I feel bad about. Did I make him too much ‘win at all costs’?”
Armstrong told Zenovich his stepfather “beat the s**t out of me.” That’s key to Armstrong’s psychological makeup, the director believes, as is his relationship with his mother.
“I think it’s a combination of his upbringing and a combination of his mother who had him young and I think was growing up with him,” she avers. “I mean, she was what, 16, 17 years old [when she had him]. The combination of not knowing who his real father was and then being adopted by his stepfather who was really pushing him.”
Parts 1 and 2 of LANCE premiered last month on ESPN on consecutive Sundays. That wasn’t the original plan.
“Initially my two-part film was going to be in theaters in the fall and then play on ESPN after that,” Zenovich comments. The network changed course to feed sports fans starved for action after the COVID-19 emergency cancelled live sporting events.
Airing LANCE in May “was a perfect time for sports fans who were hungry for content,” she observes. “It’s always great to have your film in a theater. I’m old school, so I mean, what can I say? You just had to go with it.”
Zenovich says Armstrong liked Part 1 of the film, which charts his rise, but not Part 2, which documents his fall. On the whole, she’s pleased with the reception for her film.
“They’re the people who really see what I was trying to do and see it as a character study and trying to understand Lance Armstrong this many years later,” she notes. “But then you have people who don’t care for Lance and don’t want to hear from him…You’re always going to have haters, and for someone like Lance, you have more haters than usual.”
Zenovich has won two Emmys before, for her 2008 documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, about another highly controversial figure.
“Before I won Emmys I think the only other thing I won was, god, what was it? A Three Musketeers bar for best forehand at Santa Catalina camp,” the director laughs. “It’s always thrilling to win an award, especially from your peers. It’s not easy because there are so many great films and just so many talented people working, but it’s fun to be in the race.”
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