While we sit and wait for an actor to portray Lance Armstrong in a movie (possibly Bradley Cooper), we’re about to see something much better: Lance Armstrong himself in a documentary. In “The Armstrong Lie”, we have the rare chance to see a documentary change course during filming and turn into something much greater than the original intention. Yes, Armstrong’s scandal and ultimate decline was perfect timing for filmmaker Alex Gibney who set out to make a happier documentary. It probably means a substantial difference in box office than the film otherwise would have received.
But just how daring was it to change direction midstream while following Armstrong’s eighth and ultimately duplicitous Tour de France win? It’s not the first time a documentary has changed course midway to turn into something else from initial plans. Going such a route, though, is arguably the riskiest move any filmmaker can take when budgets are tight and money backers are nervous. It’s a device that could be used again for more daring documentaries.
What’s the best example of a documentary that did this before? While it hasn’t happened often, there aren’t any better models than “F for Fake” from Orson Welles and Haskell Wexler’s “Medium Cool.”
In “F for Fake”, Welles managed to take existing footage on a documentary about painting forger Elmyr de Hory from French director François Reichenbach and turn the documentary form on its ear. What otherwise would have been a conventional documentary, Welles added his own footage and turned it into a mammoth essay on the meaning of art and the fakery involved. With de Hory biographer Clifford Irving also in the footage, Welles managed to take advantage of the news that Irving faked the infamous Howard Hughes biography in the early 1970s.
The above film may be the greatest ever cinematic example of taking ordinary documentary footage and using a different vision and news updates to turn it into something ironic and timeless. It also proved the daring of Orson Welles who was already well into his career decline by this point.
While “F for Fake” blurred many lines, “Medium Cool” from cinematographer Haskell Wexler managed to employ fiction with reality. After filming footage of the Democratic National Convention in 1968, Wexler managed to take the film and turn it into something else using a combination of reality and actors. A controversial movie of the time, it sent a strong message about media and how certain events are covered.
Even though both films above are available on DVD now, they’re still very obscure and show how shifting gears to do something greater can mean a shunning by the mainstream.
Will Gibney’s look at Armstrong’s downfall end up doing the same thing by expanding to a bigger picture essay on the essence of lies and cheating?
Let’s hope the above philosophy catches on when documentaries can always be made better with a little more time and vision. When you’re capturing events as they happen, artistic afterthoughts are going to be inevitable. And with world events constantly changing on a dime, let’s hope more as brave as Welles and Wexler are out there who use last-minute changes to take things into the stratosphere.