Icarus is an excellent example of following a story wherever it may lead, even if it takes you far away from an initial premise.
Icarus is an excellent example of following a story wherever it may lead, even if it takes you far away from an initial premise. The film’s setup is simple: director Bryan Fogel, an avid cyclist, decides to investigate how Lance Armstrong passed so many drug tests for so long, eventually outed as a cheater only by the testimony of his teammates. Fogel, who knew some of those team members, elects to find out not by merely asking those who run drug tests for athletes but to attempt to recruit them to help him cheat on one of those tests, all the better to visualize both the effects of performance-enhancing drugs and how an athlete tested dozens of times could game the system.
Initially, Fogel gets help from the forefather of modern sports testing, Don Catlin, creator and head of the UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory, which was responsible for the bulk of Armstrong’s tests. When asked about this failure to nail the cyclist, Catlin is neither defiant nor apologetic, noting with scientific dispassion that no test is perfect and that there are work-arounds. At first, Catlin seems to find the prospect of directly helping Fogel to cheat intriguing, a chance to observe first-hand how it might occur as something to add to his research. But as the prospect of potentially tying his name to an attempt to undergo a legitimate race (the Haute Route in the Swiss Alps) hits home, Catlin nervously backs out, recommending in his stead his Russian counterpart, Grigory Rodchenkov. Asked why Rodchenkov would help where he wouldn’t, Catlin dances around an answer before heavily insinuating that the two are not on equal ethical ground.
Rodchenkov hits the film with a bang, almost giddily agreeing to the project and becoming so chummy with Fogel that the documentary morphs into a warped kind of buddy comedy conducted on Skype, with the Russian offering minute instructions for how to inject steroids and how to store clean urine for tests. There’s something oddly lovable about Rodchenkov, even as he offers so many details that you know he has first-hand experience in cheating. He’s such a magnetic presence that even when Fogel’s hypothesis is disproven (despite feeling “stronger” when doing the Haute Route on drugs, he ultimately gets a worse time than when he raced it clean), the documentary is nonetheless a fun, engagingly physical examination of doping.
Then, the bombshell drops: Rodchenkov finds himself embroiled in the explosive revelations of rampant Russian doping during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, during which the country set a medal record. Suddenly, this amusing, Vice-like gonzo doc becomes closer to a political thriller, with Rodchenkov growing ever more paranoid as he talks with Fogel and news clips of the international investigation proliferate. Domestic pressures on Rodchenkov increase – as well as scrutiny from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) – and the man falls apart from the strain and decides to confess his sins to the camera.
This plot twist gives the film its true direction, but it also results in a great deal of overreach, attempting to delve into a decades-long conspiracy of state-sponsored doping in Russia largely through Rodchenkov’s harried confessionals. Fogel, by now mired in a mutual and genuine friendship with the scientist, takes the case personally, sometimes to farcical results, as when he somehow manages to sit down with an IOC investigative team to present his buddy’s testimony in absentia. It’s a baffling scene in its setup, the idea being that these investigators would not only allow this guy to speak on behalf of Rodchenkov but allow his cameras to document the meeting. It does pay off, however, in the looks of revulsion and horror that pass over the committee members’ faces as they begin to contemplate just how far-reaching the doping scandal might be, their blank stares and hands on heads a testament to how badly they wish they’d never pulled this assignment.
The attempts to make Icarus into a Citizenfour-esque thriller about a whistleblower dodging his government’s vindictive actions never quite lands. Not because the threats against Rodchenkov aren’t real, but rather because Fogel keeps trying to make the doping scandal something bigger than it already is. Where the film truly excels is in Rodchenkov’s breakdown of how the Russians accomplished their doping cheats against the comically elaborate fail-safes used by WADA and the IOC, a work-around that recalls the climax of a Soderbergh caper in its paradoxically Byzantine simplicity. Despite the real-world ramifications of the cheating, the solution is so compelling that it’s easy to get lost in it. Then there’s the increasingly upsetting face of Rodchenkov as the noose tightens. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, he, safe in America, Skypes his wife and says he is entering witness protection, the camera picking up his tears as he calmly relates this information. That such a scene is also blatantly invasive is a sadly common trope in contemporary nonfiction filmmaking. At times it’s hard to shake the feeling that the scientist is so preoccupied with potential threats against his life that he pays no heed to how his new friend might be using him.