Starring: Bryan Fogel, Grigoriy Rodchenkov, Nikita Kamaev
Director: Bryan Fogel
Running Time: 121 mins
Icarus is an American documentary about Bryan Fogel, a cyclist who attempted to replicate and expose Lance Armstrong’s doping program with the support of a Russian doping expert, Grigoriy Rodchenkov, but in the process became embroiled in the centre of the internaional scandal centring on Russia’s state-sponsored doping, with Rodchenkov’s life under serious threat from the Russian state for whistleblowing.
Although this isn’t a perfect documentary, it’s a mighty interesting one, and one that brings some thrilling international stakes to its story. Despite a slow and ultimately slightly frustrating start, the film’s very intimate relationship with Rodchenkov, the man at the centre of the scandal, is what ultimately makes it so fascinating, delving not only into the world of athletics doping, but the Russian government and political asylum, making this effectively the antithesis of the Edward Snowden case.
On the whole, I was engrossed by Icarus, but not in the same way from start to finish. Let’s explain that by looking into the film’s opening act, and why it ultimately feels like you come up a little short.
From the beginning of the film, this is clearly meant to be a documentary about doping in sport, focusing on the cycling world after Lance Armstrong’s revelation about his drug programme. Bryan Fogel, a skilled amateur cyclist, decides to compare how tackling the Haute Route (a hardcore spin-off of the Tour de France) is when both clean and using drugs.
This is a pretty intriguing and bold premise for a documentary, and as we see Fogel get deeper and deeper into his doping programme, advised by Rodchenkov all the way from Russia, you get to see the true extent to how these terrifyingly well-orchestrated cheating programmes can work.
And then, the film completely changes. Once the rumblings of Russia’s state-sponsored doping and years of cheating begin to grow, the story begins to centre on the status of Rodchenkov himself, and he quickly escapes Russia to hide in America with Fogel, for fear of being taken out by the Russian state in the wake of the scandal.
Now, the way the second story develops is even more fascinating, but I can’t help but feel a little disappointed that the initial story gets thrown in the bin so quickly. It’s amazing to see how Fogel and Rodchenkov’s chance relationship led to their involvement in this worldwide scandal, but there was a part of me that missed learning more about the intricacies of a doping programme once the film finished up.
With that said, the second part of the film is more like a massive political thriller than anything else. In similar fashion to Snowden, Rodchenkov’s story becomes one entirely about one man running from his country’s governemnt to expose what he feels is wrong, and that’s where the paranoia, drama and genuine stakes come into play.
Tying in brilliantly with major news and sporting events during the early to mid-2010s throughout, you get a real sense of how central Rodchenkov, as well as Fogel, are to such an enormous story, and the way in which Fogel directs the film allows you to enjoy it both as a thrilling political drama and an informative news piece about how state-sponsored doping works, the extent to which the government can be involved, and how far doping goes into all sports, not just cycling or track and field.
Therefore, this film is probably the best account of the changing nature of the world’s sports organisations, as the crackdown on doping reaches fever pitch given that absolutely anyone from any country can be hiding something in plain sight. There’s some fascinating insight into the flaws of drugs tests, as well as corruption and lack of safety in sports, but it all makes up for a truly riveting and often genuinely thrilling watch, and that’s why I’m giving Icarus a 7.6 overall.