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The documentary is a genre of absolutes, being one that thrives on spectacle, revealing big surprises with whistleblowers, shocking corruption, or stories of incredible human triumph. With Icarus, it is corruption, or at least that’s where it starts, intending to expose the high level of doping in sports but transforming into a real life international thriller.
Filmmaker and amateur cycling racer Bryan Fogel intends to game the system by purposefully doping himself the same way that Lance Armstrong did to compete in a grueling multi-day amateur race. He consults experts to do so, injecting myriad drugs and testosterone into his body over a period of many months, the routine leading him to get proper help from Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, the head of the Russian anti-doping program and very prominent figure in Russian athletics, dating back to the 1980s. And then things get dark as a separate investigation exposes that the Russian anti-drug commission is actually doing the opposite and a huge scandal breaks, dismantling the anti-doping lab and sending Rodchenkov into hiding as a whistleblower where his very life falls under very real danger.
Throughout this, Rodchenkov maintains secret communication with Fogel as the Russians become suspended from all competition, including the Rio Olympics and as the dangers escalate, Rodchenkov needs to escape. We witness through intense Skype calls the harrowing video chats of these two men as they plot to get Rodchenkov into the United States and as the situation in Russia turns ugly, including a suspicious colleague’s death, it’s not long before Fogel’s personal story is wholly usurped by that of Rodchenkov’s plight.
Over time, the two men bond and a trust is established, with Rodchenkov’s quoting his favorite book, George Orwell‘s 1984. And with that, Fogel does a point-blank on-the-record interview that let’s Rodchenkov unburden his past, revealing incredible secrets over the past few Olympics, naming names and putting numbers to the wins in these games that suggest Russian athletes were doping at startling levels. And at the heart of it was Rodchenkov even connecting his efforts and the national pride of the Sochi wins as leading Putin to invade Ukraine.
It’s a startling story that only grows as the film continues, and what works best is how well Fogel allows his story to fade away and let Rodchenkov’s take over. A bright and powerful presence at the start, we become swept up in Fogel’s experiment, which takes up the first thirty minutes and it is just enough time to build trust in him, something that becomes crucial in the last two thirds as he visibly shrinks from view and allows his cameras to fully embrace Ronchenkov’s chilling story.
Icarus is a remarkable film, as much a suspenseful thriller as it is a gripping exposé. It’s impossible not to be compelled by these two men and their growing relationship, and to wonder what their fates will be. As the story reaches the very top of the Russian government and the hopes and dreams of hundreds upon hundreds of athletes in that country are impacted it is these two men who linger the strongest, and courage of them both to reveal what Orwell spoke so strongly of. Truth.
Movie description: Icarus is a 2017 documentary about a man who sets out to uncover the truth about doping in sports, getting a chance meeting with a Russian scientist who transforms his story from a personal experiment into a geopolitical thriller.
Director(s): Bryan Fogel
Actor(s): Bryan Fogel, Nikita Kamaev, Grigory Rodchenkov