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Forget documentaries, this Russian doping exposé is one of 2017’s best films.
I want to shout from the mountain tops for everyone to go watch Netflix‘s Icarus.
Director and co-writer Bryan Fogel starts off with a simple enough premise: He wants to expose the flawed testing process of WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency). Fogel’s plan is to follow a doping plan designed to beat the tests and see how it enhances his performance in Haute Route, a grueling amateur cycling competition.
Anyone with a minimal amount of cycling awareness knows the system is outfoxed by cheating athletes on the regular. The film reminds us of this with numerous clips of Lance Armstrong boldly declaring his innocence. So we know if Fogel tries hard enough, most likely he’ll succeed. Being on the inside of the scheme and watching Fogel inject himself over months and months is captivating. Despite the increase in his performance, however, Fogel fails to improve on his non-doping finish. For a moment I actually felt a tinge of disappointment for him: But this is just the beginning of the doc.
Did I mention that Fogel’s drug expert backed out of their plan at the last minute? Or that he put Fogel in touch with a Russian doctor with flexible morality? That doctor, Grigory Rodchenkov, is a charismatic and extremely knowledgeable guy. He also has all the wrong connections.
After the failure of the Haute Route, the story hits another gear and the stakes immediately become life and death. It’s November 2015 and WADA has announced that it is suspending the Anti-Doping Centre, Moscow’s drug-testing laboratory—of which Dr. Rodchenkov is the director. In a panic Rodchenkov flees Russia to meet up with Fogel in the U.S.
WADA’s accusation is that Russia conducted a long-running, state-sponsored doping program. This story made waves last year when Russian athletes were banned from the Rio Olympics. (In the end 278 of 389 Russian athletes were allowed to compete.) Rodchenkov helped create and implement the program, and together he and Fogel blow the whistle it.
With each new development, the tension ratchets up to unnerving levels. Fogel’s editing and pacing turns an informative film into one that plays like a legal thriller. There are multiple points where Rodchenkov expresses concern for his personal safety. Given what is known, and assumed, about Russian President Vladimir Putin, Rodchenkov’s fears are palpable and contagious. Especially since, according to Rodchenkov, Putin ordered the code red. Putin even dismissed a criminal case against Rodchenkov in order to have the good doctor helm the program.
The race against time to get Rodchenkov’s story out and secure his safety will have your heart racing. But he’ll never feel safe again for the rest of his life. Skype calls with his wife and an awkward goodbye with Fogel constantly reiterate what Rodchenkov is risking to get the truth out. The truth may have set his conscience free, but it excommunicated the man and sent him into protective custody.
In Greek mythology Icarus died when his hubris led him to his demise by flying too close to the sun. There are a handful of Icaruses in Icarus, from the clips of Armstrong to Fogel’s initial plan to Rodchenkov’s matter-of-fact way of discussing doping. But it’s the parallel drawn between Armstrong and Putin that lands with the most impact. Rodchenkov loves George Orwell’s 1984, and the film refers back to the book a number of times. This includes a juxtaposition of the novel’s idea of doublethink (simultaneously accepting opposing beliefs as correct) with clips of Armstrong and Putin both denying involvement in doping despite overwhelming evidence (and admission in Armstrong’s case) to the contrary.
Fogel started out with the intention of making a documentary that exposes the flawed testing for doping. He succeeded in ways he never could have imagined. It’s been a strong year for documentaries, and Icarus jumps to the top of the list. It’s also one of the year’s best films, documentary or fiction.
Eddie Strait is a member of the Austin Film Critic Association. His reviews focus primarily on streaming entertainment, with an emphasis on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and other on-demand services.