One of the wonderful things about the documentary format is that sometimes directors don’t know where their story will take them. They’re leaping without a net, and while they may begin with a thesis, their investigation could end up taking them to a completely unexpected place. I highly doubt director Bryan Fogel knew where his documentary Icarus would lead when he first started, and his initial premise is muddled and pointless. But thanks to larger events Fogel couldn’t have anticipated, he forges a close relationship with the central figure in a narrative worthy of a masterful spy thriller. What begins as a poor man’s Super Size Me ends up as a superior Citizenfour.
Fogel has been a competitive amateur cyclist for all his life, but the recent reveals of athlete doping, especially in professional cycling, lead Fogel to experiment on himself. Under the supervision of Russian anti-doping director Grigory Rodchenkov, Fogel begins a doping regimen to see if he can improve his position on the brutal Haute Route, where he previously ranked 14th using no PEDs. Fogel’s thesis is that, with Rodchenkov’s help, he can prove how easy it is for any athlete to subvert the testing process. It’s an approach that doesn’t make a lot of sense. If I worked with a teacher who could tell me how to cheat on a test, then I only would have proven that cheating is easy when you’re working with someone who knows how to break the rules. It’s an obvious point, and one that doesn’t seem worth the physical health risks for Fogel.
For its first hour, Icarus indulges in this bizarre experiment where it seems like there has to be a better way to make his point about the ubiquity and nimbleness of sports doping. He does a few interviews with athletes who have admitted to doping and some interviews with the investigators who have looked into doping, but the vision seems remarkably shortsighted. It would be like if Super Size Me had only focused on Morgan Spurlock’s health instead of casting a broader look at America’s obesity crisis. At most, the biggest revelation in the first half is that Rodchenkov, who has behaved in a fairly shady manner, is a shady character.
And then the film explodes in its second half. While Fogel was off playing guinea pig, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was investigating Russian doping in the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Rodchenkov, who oversaw anti-doping for Russia, becomes a prime suspect in helping Russia game the system, and flees to America where he confides in Fogel on how Russia was able to cheat its way to gold medals at Sochi. It’s a bombshell interview from a person who previously came off as a bit of a clown in the first half of the film.
The film repositions Rodchenkov as a tragic figure in the second half, a scientist caught between the demands of the Russian government and its desire to succeed at sports at any costs and trying to appease WADA. He’s both facilitating the doping of Russian athletes and the cover-up of that doping. The revelations are absolutely fascinating, and Fogel proves himself to be brilliantly adept at refashioning his documentary into a pulse-pounding thriller.
The odd thing about Icarus is that as listless and uninteresting as the first half may be, you can’t ditch it and skip to the riveting second-half. The first half explains how Fogel and Rodchenkov became friends, Rodchenkov’s prominence in the Russian sports world, how WADA tries to combat doping, and a bunch of other important details. Unfortunately, you also have to sit through a lot of Fogel dosing himself and saving his urine samples so they can be analyzed after the Haute Route. But once you hit the second half, Icarus is one of the most captivating sports documentaries to come along in recent memory.
It’s also chilling when you see the prominent role Putin had in Russian doping, and while Trump is never mentioned in Icarus, it’s impossible not to think about him and his desire to be cozy with the Russian President who clearly has no problem killing people over something as silly as cheating at sporting events. The Olympics are important, but it’s not worth anyone’s life unless you give it that level of importance. Russia clearly does, and if you take Rodchenkov at his word (and the film backs him up without making him out to be a saint), Putin’s level of influence and reach is deeply disturbing.
Documentary directors don’t always know how their stories will turn out, but the great ones realize the need to change direction when a better narrative emerges. While Icarus may be underwhelming at the outset, Fogel deserves credit for realizing that he had a front-row seat to national scandal that hit at the heart of his original concern regarding the flawed systems in place regarding anti-doping measures. If you can power through the documentary’s flat first half, Icarus will blow you away.
Icarus does not currently have a release date.