‘Icarus’, on Netflix, is a slow-burning fuse of a film.
It’s sold as a sports documentary and that’s how it starts out, but the thing morphs completely along the way. Bryan Fogel, the filmmaker and a serious amateur cyclist, disillusioned by Lance Armstrong’s admission that he’d cheated on his drug tests for years, decides to see if he can replicate Armstrong’s doping success in amateur cycling. The head of drug testing at UCLA initally agrees to help him (asked ‘Were the other contenders at the Tour de France doping’, he cheerfully says ‘All of them’) and then decides it would be bad for his reputation, so he introduces Fogel to Grigory Rodchenkov, who, in the through-the-looking-glass world of Putin’s Russia, was simultaneously the manager of the Olympic-federation accredited anti-doping lab in Moscow and the head of the Russian state-supported athletic doping program.
Rodchenkov is an absurdly charming fellow who immediately starts showing Fogel how to cheat the authorities and hide his doping during a series of Skype calls, which are absolutely hilarious. Rodchenkov’s little dog keeps trying to hump him on camera and when WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency, starts asking questions, Rodchenkov offers without a blink to fly to LA to smuggle the urine sample’s he’s had Fogel keep in his freezer back to Moscow for doctoring.
Up to this point, the story is light and absurd. Fogel shoots himself with testosterone for months, does a grueling bike race and ends up slower than the year before but Rodchenkov says, “You’re just in the lobby. We have second and third and fourth floor, once you come to Moscow.”
But once he gets to Moscow, the scrutiny from WADA gets tighter and eventually, Rodchenkov decides to defect, leave his wife and family in Russia and come to the United States. His intuition proves prescient when one of his counterparts in the doping program drops dead of a sudden and unexpected heart attack (?) at the age of 52.
And suddenly, it’s not such a funny film anymore.
The scandal becomes a worldwide story, Rodchenkov documenting doping protocols for several Olympics to the NY Times and then an independent investigating committee. You see the Russians lying to the camera, from Rodchenkov’s bosses all the way (three steps up the chain) to Putin himself. You see Rodchenkov explaining to Fogel (the explanation aided for us by haunting animations) exactly how the Russians substituted the blood samples of 30 athletes at the Sochi Games. You see the disbelief and the unwillingness to hear on the part of the Olympic officials when they are forced into investigating (Fogel actually presents the evidence when Rodchenkov’s lawyers suggest it’s not safe for him to meet them). You see the findings of the independent investigators and you see Rodchenkov tell his wife via Skype that he has to go into witness protection.
You see the corruption and cravenness of both the Russians and the Olympic leaders when they give lip service–the Olympic committee just yesterday absolved the Russians and welcomed them back into the Olympics, despite the fact that Rodchenkov testified that the Russians haven’t competed without doping since 1968.
So many questions: Does that mean that nobody’s competed without doping since then? The Russians haven’t swamped the Olympics every time out. They’ve done very well but so have we. So have others. When you see the hypocrisy looking you in the face, it’s impossible not to wonder, impossible to dismiss. Because what we see on the faces of the Russians looks so familiar, so close to home.
And that’s what a great documentary does. This one sucks you in and doesn’t let go. Don’t miss it. On Netflix now.