Film Review: Icarus (2017)
Directed by: Bryan Fogel
Review by: Belle McIntyre
Imagine that the documentary by Morgan Spurlock, Supersize Me grafted onto Snowden and you will get a sense of what to expect in Bryan Fogel’s Academy Award winning documentary.
It has a typical first film look in both execution and subject matter. The initial inspiration being personal, as in self-referential, and narrowly focused. Fogel, an enthusiastic amateur cyclist who had competed in the most difficult amateur race, Haute Route, a week long race in the Alps, regarded by many to be as grueling as the professional version, the much longer Tour de France. Fogel’s idea for the film was to investigate the story behind doping in cycling by using himself as a guinea pig to discover just what is entailed in successful doping without detection.
Fogel’s willingness to do whatever it takes in the service of the film is impressive. Through a U.S anti-doping scientist who is unwilling to cooperate on the project, he is able to connect with a willing Russian scientist. Grigory Rodchenko, runs Russia’s Anti-Doping Center and is highly regarded by WADA, the World Anti-Doping Academy. That the fellow is a bit dodgy should be evident by his willingness to cooperate with this unknown American filmmaker making a documentary about the flaws in the system which is his purview. But the unlikely alliance is formed and we are witness to the endless steroidal injections and vials of urine which are part of Fogel’s daily routine. We are also privy to many (possibly too many) Skype conversations between Fogel and Grigory, often shirtless from his home, and an obvious affection developing between the two.
During the period of the making the film the 2014 Sochi Olympics garnered thirteen Gold Medals for Russia, and radically improved Putin’s waning popularity. Grigory Rodchenko was awarded the Order of Friendship from Putin. However, it was after that that WADA exposed the rampant doping of Russian athletes as a state run program which implicated Rodchenko’s Anti-Doping Center and put his life in danger. At this point, he has to call in favors from Fogel who arranges for him to get out of Russia and find safety in the US. The real meat of the film begins when Grigory becomes a whistleblower and tells his story to the New York Times. He
has brought with him massive amounts of detailed documentation as to the complexity of the measures used to subvert the system and produce clean results. It is staggering in its implications to all of the associated organizations whether knowing or unknowing participants.
The professional and political risks of Russians working within the system is ade palpable by Grigory’s desperate actions and obvious fear of reprisal against his life and his family. Grigory does not seem to be an agent of evil. Rather he appears as a product of an authoritarian state and he quotes liberally from George Orwell’s 1984 about “doublespeak” and darkness and light in society under totalitarianism. It is this which motivates him to come clean and tell all. The toll has been terrible and he is now under a witness protection program in the US. But that can be small comfort for him knowing the dark truths of the massive organization controlled by Putin.
It is an eye-opener even as we thought we knew so much already. The scope and depth of it is extraordinary and lends the whole story a lot of tension and drama. The seat of the pants style is part of it’s authenticity. However, I could not help but wonder what a really accomplished director like Raul Peck or Ava Duvernay might have done with it. But that would be quibbling and would detract from the tenacity of Fogel and his determination to see this project through and to help his friend, with potential personal risk to himself of retaliation. It is surely not the film that he thought he was making when he began and we can see his style developing as the story morphs. On the job training was seldom so public and well-rewarded. Kudos.