Thoughts on Lance Armstrong’s Oprah interview

January 20, 2013 in Best Of, Entertainment, Misc, Social/Political Commentary

oprah-lance-armstrong

I confess. I was one of those people who was really looking forward to Lance Armstrong’s two-part interview with Oprah over the last couple of days.

Some say why waste your time with that loser, but personally, I have been fascinated with the whole saga and wanted to see him squirm a little and be taken out of his comfort zone. I wanted to see how much of it was genuine and how much of it was staged. Was he sorry for what he had done or was he only sorry that he was caught? Would he try and squeeze out a tear? Frankly, I just wanted to see the best of the best (at lying, that is) try and explain himself out of an unexplainable situation.

On the whole, I thought the interview went relatively well.  As expected, the first part was more explosive and the second was more emotional. We got some answers to questions we already knew (still good to hear them come out of the lion’s mouth), and we didn’t get some of the answers we wanted.

In a nutshell:

  • Armstrong confessed to cheating for all seven of his Tour De France titles, including using EPO, testosterone, cortisone, blood doping, you name it  — but intentionally shied away from specific examples of how he did it;
  • He said he was sorry (duh), was reaching out to people he hurt and will try and make up for it for the rest of his life — but didn’t think he deserved a lifetime ban (which he labelled a “death sentence” when others before him only got six months;
  • He denied being the ringleader of the doping scheme and/or intentionally pressuring others on his team to dope — said he did not create the culture of doping but didn’t stop it either;
  • He denied doping after returning to the sport in 2008, which runs contrary to blood test findings by the USADA (United States Anti-Doping Agency);
  • He denied donations to the dodgy UCI (International Cycling Union) were to cover up positive drug tests;
  • He contributed his bullying and bad behaviour towards others as his desire to “control everything”;
  • He didn’t shed an actual running tear, but his eyes watered up when discussing how he told his son to stop defending him — even if you think everything else is an act, you can at least assume that the emotion here was legit;
  • He preferred to focus on himself and not name names (such as people in the UCI), probably for legal reasons, though Oprah did not exactly push him either.

It was a riveting yet frustrating interview for many reasons, none more so than the fact that you just don’t really know what is true and what is not when everything that had come out of Armstrong’s mouth up to that point had been a massive lie. It’s hard not to be cynical when he said he would not hold back and yet did precisely that when he didn’t want to answer some of Oprah’s questions (including whether Betsy Andreu’s claim that he admitted to doctors he had used PEDs was true).

On the surface, Armstrong made stepping up to the plate for the interview seem like he had balls (well, more correctly, ball). His supporters, and there are still many, have undoubtedly lapped it up. But was it enough to at least put a dent in all the negativity towards him? I don’t think it was. One look at the headlines today and you’ll see that almost all of them are cynical and are tearing the interview down as a calculated and carefully planned strategy to clean up his image for a potential new start somewhere down the road.

For starters, reports indicate that Armstrong’s entire “team” — agents, lawyers, publicists, PR experts, image consultants and crisis managers — was there for the interview to ensure that everything went according to the script they had prepared.  They would have come up with every possible question that Oprah might have asked and prepared answer guidelines. You could tell roughly where the boundaries were whenever he tried to avoid answering the question by changing the topic, glazing over it with generalities or simply “lay down” and refuse to answer.

It was obvious to anyone watching that Armstrong was walking a tightrope throughout the interview, and that his uneasiness was probably due to that as much as any feelings of embarrassment or disgrace. There was of course the legal ramifications of his responses (financial and criminal, including for perjury), and I’m sure he knew where the line was for that, but there was also the difficult goal of appearing sympathetic to audiences without making it seem like he was grasping for excuses.

The attempts were subtle but consistent. For instance, he said his doping scheme was not the worst in history because the East German ones in the 70s and 80s were worse. He said no one could have won seven consecutive Tour de France titles like him without doping and that he didn’t have access to any drugs that others didn’t, suggesting a level playing field and almost as though he was “forced” to cheat.

He tried to distance himself from himself, if that makes sense. The evil Lance, the one that cheated and lied and bullied was not really him, kind of like when murderers plead temporary insanity. He said stuff like it was “scary”, “scarier” and “scariest” when describing his mindset “at the time” because he didn’t even believe it was cheating or that he was doing anything wrong. He said he looked up the definition of  “cheating” in the dictionary and that what he was doing didn’t fit the definition of gaining an unfair advantage because everyone else was doing it. He called it the “EPO era.” He even said “look at that arrogant prick” while watching old footage of himself.

It was the same thing when it came to his bullying, although it was obviously more difficult to come across as sympathetic. Apart from apologising and promising to make amends, he tried to make his sociopathic, psychopathic behaviour seem like it was some kind of mental illness, claiming that he needed to “control the narrative” (you could argue that the interview was simply another attempt at that). When referring to all the people he had sued over the years for telling the truth about him, he said “we” have sued so many people that he had lost count, as though it wasn’t really his decision to make in the first place.

Another tactic was to play the sympathy card immediately after that. Armstrong talked about his difficult upbringing, about not knowing who his biological father is, about how he let his supporters and family down, and of course, the battle with cancer. What he’s going through right now is nothing compared to the cancer, he said.

Oprah was also the perfect platform to air his confession. She’s been known to tug at the heart strings and look for silver linings and moral stories (she even asked him what the moral of the story was towards the end). And she was less likely to go after him like some of the more “hard-hitting” journalism programs. For the record, I think she did OK; better in the first half than the second. She certainly could have pressed him more, especially on the irreparable damage he caused to the lives of some of his closest former friends, but I think she could see that she wouldn’t have gotten anywhere with that approach. I know she has been criticised a lot for the way she handled the interview, but I don’t think there was a point in turning the environment hostile when Armstrong’s just not the kind of guy who would crack under pressure. It’s not Oprah’s style, anyway.

In the end, everybody will have their views on the interview, including whether he was genuinely contrite. I’m kind of on the fence with this one. He would really have to be a complete psycho to not feel even a tiny shred of remorse, so my inclination is to lean towards “yes”, but what is pulling me back is the knowledge that he was nowhere near as open and upfront as he could have been. Body language experts have all put in their 2 cents and apparently he was “defensive”, “argumentative”, “competitive” and “rejecting opinion.”

Still, I was impressed that he actually came clean, even if it was in a half-hearted kind of way. I had been convinced that Armstrong would never admit he cheated because he had convinced himself it was true, kind of like this legend.

Breaking Bad: Too Good

November 30, 2011 in Best Of, Entertainment, Misc, On Writing, Reviews, Shows

The unfortunate thing about American cable television is that certain shows, certain utterly brilliant shows, can get lost in the mix in foreign countries, relegated to expensive local cable channels (only 6.8% of Aussies have cable), late night slots nobody knows about, or obscure digital stations with little to no advertising and about two seasons too late.  You could always browse the DVD store, but with so many shows out there, just how do you separate them without some serious research?

I recently watched all four seasons of Breaking Bad (the fifth and final season is due next year), undoubtedly one of the best dramas I have seen in years, if not ever.  Shockingly, I had never even heard of the multiple award-winning show until a friend of mine and I were discussing how important it was to have a ‘good concept’ when trying to write a script (we used to think witty dialogue was enough — damn you Tarentino!).  And as soon as he mentioned the story of Breaking Bad — an underachieving chemistry teacher who discovers he has lung cancer and turns to making and selling crystal meth with a drop kick former student in order to provide for his family, with his DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) brother-in-law hot on his trail — I was hooked.

Bryan Cranston in season one

I’m not sure if Breaking Bad is the type of show I would have appreciated in my youth.  It is filled with tension and keeps you on the edge of your seat, but in a slow, insidious kind of way unlike the ‘pure adrenaline rush’ shows (such as say 24 and the first season of Prison Break).  It’s a drama but the unexpected black comedy keeps making me laugh out loud, while the grotesque violence and depravity keeps making me squirm.  It grabs you in with this compelling idea and pulls you deeper and deeper into the world of drug dealing and the horrific impact it has on the lives of everyone around it.  Creator Vince Gilligan said he wanted to follow a character as he gradually descends from a morally upstanding person into a total badass.  And after four seasons, Breaking Bad‘s protagonist Walt is well on his way.

Walt may have gone into meth making because of the purest of intentions — but because of the constant lies and deceit, the dark (and darker) moral decisions and judgments he is forced to make, combined with a massively suppressed ego that is finally released — he finds himself regularly pushing the boundaries and crossing lines you could never have imagined him crossing at the beginning of the show (or even a season ago).  And yet, despite who he is and who he has become, deep down you still find yourself rooting for Walt, which is really at the heart of what makes Breaking Bad so freaking good.

I love this poster of the 'breaking bad' Walter

The show is brilliantly constructed from top to bottom, inside out.  The quality scripts produced by American writers on such shows never cease to amaze me.  Sometimes hilarious, sometimes horrifying, always riveting.  The direction and the pacing are measured, allowing the story to unfold in a deliberate fashion.  The use of cinematography is probably the best I’ve seen in any TV show.

But of course, the show would not be where it is without the characters and the actors portraying them.   Bryan Cranston (prior to Breaking Bad, best known as the dad in Malcolm in the Middle, though I was stunned to discover that he was actually smug dentist Tim Whatley in Seinfled!) deservedly won three consecutive Emmys for his astonishing portrayal of protagonist Walter White (and it probably would have been four straight had the scheduling not precluded the show from this year’s Emmys).

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Cranston grabs the spotlight with his award-winning performance, which makes people forget how magnificent and equally irreplaceable Aaron Paul is as the insufferable yet lovable Jesse Pinkman.  I’m glad to see Paul, whose character was almost killed off in the first couple of episodes, be rewarded with an Emmy of his own in 2010.

This drug-making duo drives the show, but every key supporting character, from Walt’s wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and disabled son Walt Jr (RJ Mitte) to brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) and sister-in-law Marie (Betsy Brandt), is multi-dimensionally crafted.  And what about sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk)?  Everybody has their own motives, weaknesses and demons.  Special mention has to go out to Walt’s boss and intellectual equal Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), who absolutely ignited the screen in season four.  It’s not often that all the core characters from a show are this interesting, dynamic and ever-evolving.

And now we wait for the final season, season five, which is reportedly going to be 16 episodes (season one had seven episodes, and seasons two through four each had 13).  I for one am eager to see where the show heads after the way season four ended.  Will Walt keep falling deeper and deeper or will he try to turn back around (if he can)?  What will happen to his explosive love-hate relationship with Pinkman?  Will Skyler become an official part of the family business?  And will Hank finally realise the man he’s after has been right beside him all along?

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about an idea for a TV show.  It’s about a meth cooker who, after discovering that his cancer has been cured, decides to quit to become a high school chemistry teacher.  I think it’ll be a winner.

Movie Review: Limitless (2011)

March 25, 2011 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Decided to go with the 'alternate' poster

Limitless kind of came out from nowhere to become the number one film on my ‘to see’ list.  I had heard nothing about it until a recent trailer, and it was a good one.  A struggling writer (Bradley Cooper) stumbles across a drug that allows him to use 100% of his brain (humans apparently can only utilise about 20% of it).  How cool is that?  The potential, as the title suggests, is limitless.

However, I was also rather wary.  Techno-thrillers with a slight fantasy edge rarely pan out well.  A smart idea is usually let down by a poor screenplay and clumsy execution.  But surprisingly, Limitless didn’t suffer from either.

This was a slick, stylish film (with some eye-popping sequences) that I found simply exhiliarating at times.  Perhaps it’s because the charismatic Cooper plays a writer (or at least starts off as one), or perhaps it’s because the drug opens up so many exciting possibilities, possibilities we can only dream of — whatever the reason, I just wanted to keep watching to see what would happen next.  And unlike most films of this kind, the ending didn’t totally suck.

That’s not to say Limitless is not flawed, because it is.  It’s too long (it’s just 105 minutes but it felt long) and tonally uneven.  Apart from Cooper, the supporting roles are all pretty thankless (Abbie Cornish, Robert De Niro).  And if you really want to look closely you’ll probably find plenty of holes in the story.  But I can overlook all of that because it was interesting, it was thrilling, and it was enjoyable.  A surprise hit.

4 stars out of 5!

R.I.P Corey Haim (sob)

March 10, 2010 in Best Of, Entertainment

Corey Haim (right) and Corey Feldman back in more innocent days

Corey Haim (right) and Corey Feldman back in more innocent days

[Update: the coroner has finally released a report clarifying that Corey Haim did not die of a drug overdose as initially suspected.  Haim’s official cause of death is pneumonia complicated by an enlarged heart and narrowed blood vessels.]

Tragic.

One of my favourite dudes from the late 80s and early 90s, Corey Haim, passed away on 10 March 2010, at just 38 years old.  No formal cause of death has been determined but it’s no surprise most speculate that drugs were involved.

Haim has been ‘troubled’ for many years now, to the point where his best mate Corey Feldman (also one of my faovurite dudes as a kid, who starred with Haim in many films and later on the reality TV series The Two Coreys) refused to have any contact with him until he got his life back on track.  Sadly, there’s no chance of that happening now.

This wound is fresh because I had just watched Lost Boys: The Tribe (review coming soon), in which Haim had a small cameo in the credits and was reportedly to be involved in a further sequel.  He also apparently said in a recent interview that he has to get clean or else he would die or go to prison.  I thought he had turned the corner…

Anyway, I’ll always remember watching Haim’s straight-to-video  ‘classics’ with my sister as kids – such as Prayer of the Rollerboys (I bought my first pair of rollerblades after this!), License to Drive, Dream a Little Dream, The Dream Machine and Fast Getaway (amongst others) – back in the day when those movies were cool, and Haim and Feldman were cool guys, heart throbs, the Robert Pattinson and Zac Efron of their day.

It’s such a shame.

[PS: Corey Feldman on his WordPress blog:

I was awakened at 8:30 this morning by my brother and sister knocking on my bedroom door. They informed me of the loss of my brother Corey Haim. My eyes weren’t even open all the way when the tears started streaming down my face. I am so sorry for Corey, his mother Judy, his family, my family, all of our fans, and of course my son who I will have to find a way to explain this to when he gets home from school. This is a tragic loss of a wonderful,beautiful,tormented soul, who will always be my brother,family, and best friend. We must all take this as a lesson in how we treat the people we share this world with while they are still here to make a difference. Please respect our families as we struggle and grieve through this difficult time. I hope the art Corey has left behind will be remembered as the passion of that for which he truly lived. ~ Corey

Well said Feldman.]