Icarus 2

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Given the film’s somewhat odd marriage of style — the personality-driven presence of chatty neophyte documentarian Bryan Fogel — and substance — the ugly realities of the longtime Russian doping program for Olympic competitors — the inclusion of “Icarus” as one of the five Oscar-nominated nonfiction features came as something of a surprise. But as the winter games get underway in Pyeongchang, South Korea on February 9, coverage of the Russians continues to dominate headlines in a bit of timing fortuitous to the profile of Fogel’s movie.

Prior to being added to Netflix’s catalog in August, “Icarus” premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, where it received a special jury commendation dubbed the Orwell Award. The movie begins with Fogel’s argument that the use of performance-enhancing substances offers the only pathway for him to rank with the long-distance cyclists at the very top of the sport. As diarist/guinea pig/deliberate cheater, Fogel seeks to partner with someone who can assist him with a drug regimen potentially undetectable by official testers. He intends to film the whole process.

The provocative plan for Fogel to record his own complicity in both the use of banned cocktails and the measures to obscure those drugs under testing prefigures the bombshells driving the story that soon emerges in “Icarus.” Fogel seeks out an expert in doping unafraid to collaborate with him on his wild plan and crosses paths with Grigory Rodchenkov, the former director of Russia’s anti-doping lab. The colorful, garrulous Rodchenkov then displaces Fogel as the film’s center of attention, and the drama turns from Fogel’s “Super Size Me”-style stunt to a heavier examination of state-sponsored fraud.

Currently in witness protection in the United States based on credible threats to his life, whistleblower Rodchenkov presents himself as an almost too-good-to-be-true character. “Icarus” tends to play up Rodchenkov’s willingness to spill the beans on every facet of Russia’s doping enterprise, connecting the dots all the way to Putin (even though the cover-up goes back long before the current leader of the Russian Federation assumed his job). As Fogel and Rodchenkov develop a close relationship, the filmmaker intersperses his new friend’s disclosures with updates on key players in the unfolding World Anti-Doping Agency response.

The timeliness of the Olympic connection and the broader, ongoing concerns related to Russia’s hand in world affairs — especially related to the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issuing a joint statement asserting interference by Russia in the 2016 United States presidential election — add some aspect of intrigue to “Icarus.” One can expect to see more of these kinds of stories in the pipeline.   

The extensive use of video chats on laptop screens burdens the movie with a cheap and fuzzy DIY quality unsuited to the importance of the subject matter, and several reviewers have mentioned the awkwardness of the bifurcated structure that juggles Fogel’s narrative alongside Rodchenkov’s. A section detailing the elaborate urine-swapping procedure and the process of defeating Swiss manufacturer Berlinger’s supposedly tamper-proof, locking-cap glass containers is arguably the film’s most compelling bit of storytelling, but “Icarus” concludes as a disjointed, mixed bag of half-formed hypotheses about the future of sport and sportsmanship that leaves the viewer wanting something more substantive.

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