A documentary purporting to expose cheating in sports turns out to be an international thriller. So it is with “Icarus” (2017), the film named after a Greek mythological character who failed because of his own virtues (the Icarus Paradox).
Bryan Fogel, who wrote and directed the film, is an energetic amateur cyclist looking in his early 40s perhaps. Most of the time, his bod is shaved, and he lives in a world where masculinity is more a matter of performance than trappings (I’ll get ahead of myself and add that the Russian sports circle insists its athletes be married).
He decides to do a citizen investigation of doping as he plans to ride the Haute Route in France and Switzerland. The film introduces the topic with a couple clips of Lance Armstrong, before getting to Fogel’s own story. First Fogel contacts Don Catlin about his experiment, who backs out due to the obvious risks. Fogel then makes the fateful turn to the Russians, contacting the doping doctor Grigory Rodchenkov.
The result is a huge expose of the entire Russian staging of the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014. I’ll add that the politics of the 2013 anti-gay propaganda law fed into this (not mentioned in the film), as did Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and Crimea (covered). Putin starts appearing more often in the film, which turns into a stinging indictment of Russian kleptocracy, obviously politically important now given all the investigations of Putin’s alleged collusion with Donald Trump. We get to see a lot of Moscow in some episodes. This turns out to be compelling “conservative film” that the mainstream GOP would like but that The Donald would not.
As Grigory gets in trouble, he calls Fogel back home in Utah. Fogel arranges Grigory’s trip to the United States, apparently for the sake of Grigory’s security from the Russians, a kind of unofficial asylum seeking. But then the FBI and US attorney in New York City get involved. Grigory winds up living incognito in a secret location (which the film implies is on the California coast in the last scene). The film manages to show in detail how the Russians covered up their falsification of urine tests. It’s pretty elaborate but all real-world spy stuff.
What seems intriguing is that a filmmaker and “amateur” sports enthusiast (reminding me of Minnesota filmmaker Shane Nelson and his “A Film in Three Parts” (2002) about amateur extreme sports) puts his own skin in the game of international political activism. He could have filmed a similar native about Central American or perhaps LGBT asylum seekers if he wanted to.
The film ends as Grigory admits “Slavery was my freedom”. We do get a glimpse of Rio in 2016, as a kind of redemption. The film’s tagline is “Truth is a banned substance”.
The music score contains excerpts from Alexandrov’s Russian National Anthem, as well as from Shostakovich Symphony #8.
The film was revised (from Sundance) somewhat when Netlfix acquired it, but the online version looks like a full director’s cut at 121 minutes.
Picture from Haute Route, France (wiki).
Picture from Moscow (wiki).
|Director, writer:||Bryan Fogel|
|When and how viewed:||Netflix instant play|
|Companies:||Diamond, Sundance Selects, Netflix|
(Posted: Wednesday, August 30, 2017 at 6:45 PM EDT)