Few filmmakers have stumbled upon documentary gold in quite as fortuitous a fashion as Bryan Fogel, the man behind this revelatory account of Russia’s state-sponsored doping program. Primarily a playwright (he wrote an off-Broadway comedy called Jewtopia), Fogel is also a keen amateur cyclist and, in the wake of the Lance Armstrong scandal, set out to prove just how easy it was to evade cycling’s creaking testing system by competing chemically enhanced in the same prestigious amateur race that he had struggled in the year before. The plan was to boost his best time, pass with flying colours through the urine tests required of all competitors and broadcast the results in muckraking documentary form.
Icarus film finds more than Greek tragedy in Russia doping scandal | Sean Ingle
To help him perform this grand experiment, Fogel recruited a team of experts, one of whom pointed him in the direction of Grigory Rodchenkov, the eccentric director of Moscow’s Anti-Doping Centre. And that’s when things got really interesting. Rodchenkov threw himself into helping Fogel cheat the system with a level of enthusiasm that probably shouldn’t be expected from the head of an anti-drugs unit, going as far as smuggling Fogel’s urine through airport security. Even more extraordinarily, Rodchenkov openly admitted on camera that similarly nefarious methods were used to enhance the performances of his home country’s athletes at the Sochi Winter Olympics, where Russia took home 13 gold medals.
When, a few months later, the World Anti-Doping Association (Wada) released a report revealing the full extent of Russian state-sponsored doping and Rodchenkov’s involvement in it, and Fogel received a panicked Skype call from Rodchenkov saying that he feared for his life and was going to flee to the US, Fogel’s gonzo experiment had become a front-row seat to one of the biggest sporting scandals in decades.
The resulting film, Icarus, gamely attempts to lash together this multi-stranded shaggy dog story into something approaching a coherent documentary-cum-conspiracy thriller. If it’s not entirely successful, you can at least forgive its deficiencies given the access Fogel manages to acquire. On moving to the US, Rodchenkov morphs into a whisteblower, and his testimony is stunningly detailed, implicating everyone up to and including Vladimir Putin in the doping scandal and suggesting that it is something that has been going on across Russian sports for decades.
Meanwhile, as the documentary progresses, Fogel finds himself becoming a more central figure in the story he’s trying to tell. One remarkable scene sees him, in Rodchenkov’s absence (due to safety concerns), testifying in front of a visibly angry group of Wada employees, suggesting to them that Rodchenkov, who has had to leave his home and family over the scandal, is himself a victim.
Quite whether that’s the case is questionable. Certainly its clear that Fogel has been won over by the ebullient Rodchenkov from the pair’s very first meeting over Skype. You can see why: he’s charismatic, makes for a great subject and is always willing to divulge a bit of devastating inside info to camera. At the same time though, there’s an inescapable slipperiness to Rodchenkov’s character that makes his testimony slightly hard to swallow. At points, he exhibits remorse at his actions, lamenting that Russia’s medal haul at Sochi might have emboldened Putin in his decision to meddle in the Ukraine; other times he seems mischievously gleeful at his own nefarious deeds. Fogel doesn’t quite seem to have the critical distance to ascertain what might be the true position.
There are other failings too: at two hours, the film sags a little in the middle and certainly could have done without the clunky conceit in its second half, where Rodchenkov’s testimony is bookended by him reading aloud from Orwell’s 1984. But it’s hard to deny the power of Icarus’s message and the remarkable nature of its delivery.
Icarus is now available on Netflix