The resurgence of the documentary thriller has yielded strong results over the past decade. “CitizenFour” is the masterpiece of the genre, but other films like “The Ivory Game” and “Winter on Fire” have ignited the public imagination. These films have simultaneously sparked activism and are very much a product of the zeitgeist. Another film looking to join that group is “Icarus” a new documentary from Netflix. The film is one of the most winding, and at times epic, documentaries of the past few years. While the film begins with a focused narrative on performance enhancing drugs in cycling, the story shifts gears. In the blink of an eye, the film takes on an international conspiracy involving drugs, the Olympics, and Russian politics. It is a rollercoaster ride, that feels born of Tom Clancy novel while starting with more humble beginnings.
“Icarus” comes from second-time filmmaker Bryan Fogel (“Jewtopia”), who begins the film as the subject of the film. Fogel became obsessed with cycling after Greg LeMond took home the Yellow Jacket in 1986, becoming the first American to win the Tour De France. In the 2000s, Lance Armstrong became one of the most dominant athletes in modern history. This made the reveal of his PED use one of the landmark moments in modern sports culture. Fogel questions how easy could be to duplicate Armstrong’s PED program, especially because Armstrong never failed a drug test despite being tested more than 50 times. Fogel enlists the help of American Anti-Doping government officials, who refer him to one Grigory Rodchenkov. This is where the film begins to turn, and we find the true subject of our film.
Rodchenkov is an eccentric man who comes off as humorous, mischievous, and charismatic all at once. As Fogel continues his doping regimen, Rodchenkov meets with him and gives him precise instructions on how to hide “pure urine” and other tricks to fool the tests. We find out that Rodchenkov runs one of the largest labs in Russia for the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), confirming this is essentially an inside job. Rodchenkov has full support from Russian government officials, including Vladimir Putin, to find ways around these tests.
During Fogel’s regiment, the unthinkable occurs. A documentary is released in Germany that throws Rodchenkov under the bus and begins to expose the systemic cheating by Russian athletes. WADA suspends Rodchenkov’s entire lab and essentially disavows his group from the organization. Rodchenkov receives increased governmental scrutiny, and when it is announced that the Russian track and field team will be disqualified from the Olympics in Rio, Rodchenkov fleas the country.
Films that expose lengthy and complicated conspiracies are often forced to make logical jumps without utilizing a true source. However, this is where “Icarus” excels beyond what one might believe. Fogel was already filming a documentary of his own, and as an experienced filmmaker, has tools at his disposal one would only dream of. He’s been recording every Skype call and Google Hangout. He’s recovered archival footage from decades of athletic competition. Yet most importantly, Fogel gets Rodchenkov to show up on his doorstep as he evades Russian enforcers. To have the source of the story in your own house, Fogel has the ultimate resource at his disposal.
While the film is winding at times, the editing is crisp and fluid. This gives “Icarus” the ability to crescendo at the right moments, which ultimately build on each other. While there are several small moments that could be the most important event of another documentary, “Icarus” keeps its eye on the prize. The mini-climaxes all work to service a larger issue, namely the governmental conspiracy at its center. That is not to say we don’t get the payoff at other moments in the film, including a semi-conclusion to Fogel’s original attempt to beat the drug tests on his own. However, the film knows when to abandon this storyline in favor of a far grander and impactful narrative.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the film is the way it handles Rodchenkov’s storyline. He is introduced as a corrupt man who has loose morals. His corruption is confirmed, but the way the film is edited, you begin to feel sorry for him. He may have orchestrated the greatest PED conspiracy in sports history, yet he is a tragic figure. It is a tough dichotomy to pull off, especially given the negativity that surrounds the use of PEDs.
Perhaps the best moments come late in the film, as Rodchenkov begins testifying to US officials about his role, and he begins to break down physically and emotionally. He will likely never see his family again and is aware they are back in Russia. It is a gut punch, one that allows the audience to forget Rodchenkov’s past discretions in favor of cheering on the whistleblower. Rodchenkov is far from innocent. His actions have ruined many athlete’s lives. Yet his flaws make him an interesting topic of the film and work to humanize him in startlingly real terms.
“Icarus” is a strong documentary worthy of the praise it has received so far. It has already taken home the new Orwell Award Prize from the Sundance Film Festival. It is a startling narrative, and one of the strongest films of 2017. There may be no documentary that stumbles its way into the zeitgeist at a more opportune time than “Icarus,” but then again, there are few films that have this opportunity. Simply put, Fogel and his team find the topic as serious as the audience will. “Icarus” treats its subject with an unflinching lens that showcases a truth behind his misdeeds, while simultaneously allowing Rodchenkov to become a sympathetic man.