Icarus  – An Imperfect yet Revelatory Documentary on the Doping Scandal
Playwright Bryan Fogel’s documentary Icarus (2017) tells a shocking and thrilling story that we can overlook its heavy-handed approach and sloppy narrative choices. The project pretty much started off in attention-seeking mode, maddeningly inspired by the appalling stories about doped athletes. Half-way into the project, Bryan Fogel accidentally finds himself embroiled in the midst of incendiary geopolitical developments that the top head-lines start to originate from his side. Bryan Fogel has a keen interest in cycling sport and has participated in amateur cycling events. In the wake of Lance Armstrong’s doping scandal, Fogel decides to prove how simple it was to elude the present-day drugs testing system. His target was Haute Route Cycling race in Switzerland – a prestigious and tough race for amateurs — in which he achieved 14th place in the previous year. Now the mission is to take performance-enhancing drugs, seek a physician to help him evade drug detection, and show far better result at the race. Of course, this is not the first time a documentarian turns himself into a lab-rat (Morgan Spurlock in Super Size Me). This initial central conception or the personal documentary-mode gets over-turned after Fogel’s acquaintance with Grigory Rodchenkov.
When Fogel was seeking expertise to keep his doping undetected he was pointed to the direction of Rodchenkov, the director of Moscow anti-doping center. It’s interesting how Rodchenkov joyously jumps on-board to cheat the system in which he occupies the top position. Fogel and the Russian doctor develop strong rapport through their video-chats. Rodchenkov takes him through the process of freezing and storing urine. The instructions go as far as smuggling urine through airport security. Fogel confides that during this time he was unaware of 60 minute German documentary Top-Secret Doping: How Russia makes its Winners and other allegations against Mr. Rodchenkov (aired in late 2014). Starting from 2011, the Russian doctor and the other higher-ups in Russian government were accused of developing elaborate doping program for Russian athletes to beat the testing system. This widespread contention reached a threshold point right after Fogel’s personal project fails to pay off. Due to different reasons, the documentary-maker’s original plan goes bad (his amateur cycling performance gives far worse results than from the previous year).
Before contemplating on his failure, Fogel gets swept away by the strong allegations made by World Anti-Doping Association (WADA). The association released an extensive report on the Russian state-sponsored doping program (particularly during 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics), insisting on Rodchenkov’s involvement. The Russian doctor makes a panicked Skype call to Fogel stating that he fears for his life. Since the doping scheme was concocted by top brass government officials and Vladimir Putin himself, Rodchenkov could be easily be silenced and offered as the scapegoat. With Fogel’s help, the doctor flees to US and decides to go on public record to reveal the mechanics developed to cheat anti-doping agency and the Olympic officials. Fogel gets into ‘Laura Poitras’ mode and obvious parallels are drawn between Edward Snowden and Rodchenkov. The whistle-blower’s story is told with a sense of urgency, contextualizing its implications in the broader political circle. Not long before, the Russian doctor’s testimony (backed up with documents and minute details), makes us think of the phrase ‘truth is stranger than ficiton’.
Bryan Fogel definitely struggles to present the wealth of the material or to deeply immerse us into the predicament of the central subject Rodchenkov. The fumble is understandable, since what started off as elaborate prank suddenly veers off into the direction of life-threatening conspiracy. Fogel’s minimal experience as documentarian shows particularly in the second-half when he employs the typical montage-effects to simply dump information one after another. Thankfully, much of the information itself is very eye-opening that the familiar aesthetic presentation doesn’t bother us a lot. The other big issue with Icarus is Fogel’s propensity to put himself at the center of action. It’s graspable that much of director Fogel’s on-screen decision was taken on what the circumstance demanded. But yet there’s no critical distance between the director and documentary’s central subject (Rodchenkov). At one occasion, Fogel testifies in front of enraged WADA members (in absence of Rodchenkov due to his safety concerns) and paints the subject in heroic & victim brushes. Despite Rodchenkov’s courageous disclosure, it is fairly disputable to perceive him as a victim or compare his predicament with Edward Snowden. The American whistle-blower opted out of the relative safety and wealth in his home-land to serve the truth; the same can’t be said about the Russian whistle-blower. In fact, Mr. Rodchenkov is kind of elusive personality. His eccentricity is as charming as the famous Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek. Yet, we can’t be sure how much of his laments are truthful.
Repeatedly, we see the Russian doctor through his ebullient friendly relationship with director Fogel. So there seems to be lack of objective position to deeply assess the documentary’s central subject. However, it doesn’t mean that the information provided by Rodchenkov is unreliable or inconclusive. Vladimir Putin and his cohorts’ despicable deception was proven beyond reasonable doubt (the way Snowden’s revelation of NSA’s world-wide snooping was proven). The problem is painting the whistle-blower in broader strokes, deriving comparisons from Greek mythology and George Orwell’s ‘1984’. It’s true how Putin’s approach to the political business perfectly reflects the nefarious activities in Orwell’s fictional Oceania. But it seems far-fetched to compare Rodchenkov with Orwell’s protagonist Winston Smith (in ‘1984’). This kind of PR spin is what irritates me in an otherwise harrowing depiction of ill-meaning people in modern sports. At 120 minutes, Netflix’s Icarus definitely provides stunning truths about degrading athletic integrity and cunning political intrusion in the honorable sports arena. The documentary’s directorial failings didn’t wholly dilute the sting of its powerful disclosure.