Rating: 4/5 Urine Samples
Compelling, surprising and downright shocking, director Bryan Fogel’s Netflix-exclusive documentary “Icarus” is essential viewing for anyone interested in the world of competitive sports, especially the ongoing Winter Olympics in South Korea.
In the years following Lance Armstrong’s admittance of using performance-enhancing drugs, first-time director Bryan Fogel attempts to prove he can get away with doping without detection by the World Anti-Doping Agency. If Fogel succeeds in his experiment, he could bring attention to the ease at which athletes can cheat in professional sports competitions. Through a peculiar chain of events, Fogel gets in contact with Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of a WADA-supported laboratory, to oversee Fogel’s doping experiment. This poses the question — why would the head of an anti-doping administration help Fogel cheat the system?
“Icarus” begins as an entertaining documentary and ends as a pulse-pounding real-life thriller, as Fogel learns of a Russian state-sponsored Olympic doping program.
While some viewers might associate the documentary genre with stale shots of people talking directly to the camera and the overused Ken Burns filming effects, in which the camera slowly zooms and pans over photographs, “Icarus” transcends viewers’ expectations. Watching the film is akin to watching a tense spy film, except everything viewers watch on-screen is happening in real-life.
With a thick Russian accent, a pair of large glasses and an occasionally juvenile sense of humor, Rodchenkov proves a fascinating subject for the film’s second half, as Fogel’s personal story eventually fades to the background.
Rodchenkov, under the supervision of the KGB — or the Russian Committee for State Security — was instructed to swap Russian athletes’ steroid-tainted urine with clean samples to avoid detection on many different occasions. This had a large part in Russian athletes’ success in numerous athletic competitions, including the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Rodchenkov reveals this athletic dishonesty was approved by the highest levels of Russian authority — including Vladimir Putin himself.
As Rodchenkov explains, he was arrested early in his career for trafficking performance-enhancing drugs and subsequently diagnosed with schizotypal personality disorder, which landed him in a mental institution in 2011. The Russian government dropped his charges, however, guaranteeing his freedom through participation in the Russian doping program. He became a vessel for illegal activity, fueling national pride after the country’s success in competitions. If Rodchenkov had acted in his own interests, he would have been severely punished by the Russian government, possibly even killed.
Rodchenkov frequently references George Orwell’s “1984” throughout the film, and he thinks modern society — particularly Russian — is not dissimilar to Orwell’s dystopian vision.
Putting their lives at risk, Fogel helps Rodchenkov escape to the United States to reveal this troubling information. “Icarus” becomes a real-life thriller at this point, with Fogel recording their stressful situation.
The film demonstrates the potential horrors of egotism, governmental dishonesty and Orwell’s concept of “doublethink,” in which people hold two opposing views at the same time they believe accurate.
The film is also a tribute to whistleblowers, who risk their lives to reveal the truth.
While “Icarus” is a virtually flawless film once Rodchenkov becomes the central subject, Fogel’s initial doping experiment is significantly less compelling. Fogel’s experiment proves intriguing but takes up too much of the film’s run-time. Fogel should have spent more of this time developing Rodchenkov’s personal history, which feels somewhat rushed later in the film.
The film’s shocking revelations might leave viewers flabbergasted. Not only does “Icarus” provide an in-depth view into the complex world of professional sports, but it also illustrates a society which George Orwell himself would be deeply concerned with.