Brisbane 2013: The Armstrong Lie, Bertolucci On Bertolucci and Europa Report
Posted on Tuesday November 19, 2013, 19:00 by Sam Toy in Under The Radar
If The Armstrong Lie reveals anything about documentary filmmaking, it’s about the need for surprise. Alex Gibney’s film about disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong has everything else you could possibly ask for: a compelling subject who is not all they seem, writing themself a hero’s journey of which Joseph Campbell himself would have been proud, only to have it up-ended - as Gibney's cameras are rolling - to their public disgrace and potential ruin. Its only real flaw is timing: unfortunately, and through no-one's fault, it has arrived when Armstrong's saga is neither hot news any longer, nor yet a forgotten story with a new revelation.
I went in knowing as much as most – Armstrong beat his advanced cancer and went on to win (with sensational illegality) the Tour de France seven times. Gibney began documenting Armstrong in 2009 as he prepared for his comeback, under already intense scrutiny for doping. In 2010 – just as Gibney thought he was finishing up - one of Armstrong’s former teammates made a formal allegation against him. The avalanche of evidence finally engulfed Armstrong in June 2012. By January 2013 it was all over, and before America and Oprah, he publicly admitted his guilt. Gibney was virtually back to square one. But post-Oprah, Armstrong granted Gibney another interview, where with nothing more to lose, the master liar promised to tell the whole truth.
I was expecting the entire film to hinge on that interview, but Gibney’s remarkable skills deliver more. The devil is in the detail, and it’s fascinating to watch how Armstrong’s web of lies grew, strand by strand, held together by omerta, which was enforced through sheer will of (by what seems by all outwards appearances to be) his sociopathic personality. I may have felt like I knew all of the juiciest parts of Armstrong’s story, but was more than happy to be proven wrong.
Bertolucci On Bertolucci shares more than just the styling of its title with the Faber & Faber book series. Despite the publishing company having (as far as I’m aware) no involvement with this film of the Italian director, it plays out as if someone had taken the source material and simply edited it to theme rather than chronological order, with very little else in the way of additional footage or reference.
If you’re a Bertolucci noob, you might find yourself all at sea with no clips to explain or contextualise his eloquently phrased cinematic philosophies; If you’re fan enough to have seen all of his works (and those of anyone else he mentions), then I wonder if you wouldn’t have seen these interviews before at any time in the last fifty odd years they were recorded. As a subject Bertolucci is entertaining and informative of his own accord, but its presentation feels like muesli when we should be celebrating this filmmaker with high tea.
I’m a sucker for science fiction that keeps its footing in as much reality as possible, and I long for the day that I’ll see a film that manages to hold until its end credits what Sunshine kept up for its first two thirds (before supernatural wobbly spaceman turned up). I had hoped that Europa Report, with its programme synopsis promise of a series of astronauts struggling against ‘technical problems and human error’, might just be that film, even on a low budget.
Director Sebastian Cordero quickly establishes this as a ‘found footage’ movie. I couldn’t think of straight sci-fi having done it before, and the idea certainly has potential, so benefit of the doubt... He also makes a welcome break from tradition in his almost total use of static cameras located in (conveniently!) dozens of areas around the ship.
We are informed that a privately funded mission to investigate the possibility of life in the ice of Jupiter’s moon Europa, started to go wrong when Earth lost contact with the international crew for months. Eventually, the communications came back online of their own accord. So far, so much potential for The Abyss-like wonder.
The film glides by nicely for a while with some solid scenes and performances (Sharlto Copley dons another American accent), but after a while, the film begins to lose its grip. Liberties are taken both with the science (if Gravity bends the space rules, Europa Report blows them out of an airlock) and the narrative, jumping back and forth, contrary to the framing device we were set up with. Sci-fi genre fans will undoubtedly want to mine this for its finer moments, but it’s a scattershot effort.