Directed by: Bryan Fogel
Premise: Filmmaker and cyclist Bryan Fogel investigates the use of performance enhancing drugs in sports. He forms a relationship with Russian doctor Grigory Rodchenkov and together they expose Russia’s longstanding program of doping their Olympic athletes.
What Works: Icarus is an example of a documentary investigation gradually revealing its central argument over the course of the film. Filmmaker Bryan Fogel is an amateur cyclist who looked up to Lance Armstrong and was disillusioned when Armstrong was exposed as a user. That set Fogel on a path of investigating the doping process and he began documenting his own use of performance enhancing drugs to expose the unreliable the testing regimens. This led to a relationship with Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov who at the time was the head of Russia’s national anti-doping laboratory. As Fogel and Rodchenkov gradually got closer, the Russian doctor revealed that the anti-doping program is in fact a front for state-sponsored use of performance enhancing drugs among virtually every category of Russia’s Olympic athletes. Icarus makes its case convincingly and the documentary has the feel of a Hollywood spy thriller. It’s told from the point of view of the unassuming journalist who quickly finds himself over his head with a scoop of global implications and he is paired with a doctor who is a colorful personality. There is a palpable fear running throughout Icarus especially once Rodchenkov goes public with the evidence of Russian doping. The doctor flees his home country, leaving behind his family and his assets, out of fear that the Russian government will kill him. But Rodchenkov’s safety and stability in the United States is far from certain with federal and Olympic investigators viewing him with suspicion. Icarus is well made; the movie is shot with high production values given the nature of this kind of documentary and its filmmaking style borrows techniques from sports documentaries and journalistic exposés. It moves along at a clip while providing in-depth information and Icarus connects sports with bigger political themes. What begins as the story about a guy confronting his disillusionment with his favorite sport becomes a tale of international intrigue with potentially life and death stakes.
What Doesn’t: Icarus begins as a movie about the doping process and Bryan Fogel’s own experience with performance enhancing drugs. Fogel is an amateur cyclist and Icarus documents an improvement in his performance after using medication. This puts Fogel in a unique position to see doping from the athlete’s point of view. But Icarus never takes advantage of Fogel’s experience and once the Russian aspect of the story gets going, everything about Fogel drops away. The movie also has a confused regard for Grigory Rodchenkov. The filmmakers regard him as a hero and indeed he is brave for blowing the whistle on corruption and putting himself at risk. However, Rodchenkov knew so much about Russia’s doping program because he oversaw it. There is no reckoning of Rodchenkov’s own culpability nor any explanation of why he decided to expose the program.
DVD extras: Only available on Netflix.
Bottom Line: Icarus is a startling documentary. It misses some relevant issues but the main argument is made convincingly and the film reveals one of the biggest stories in the history of sports.
Episode: #677 (December 10, 2017)