Flying too close to the truth

When filmmaker and amateur cyclist Bryan Fogel sets out to make his documentary Icarus, his premise is clear: If professionals like Lance Armstrong and other top racers can dope and get away with it (at least for awhile), can an avid yet average cyclist do the same thing? What kind of change will he see in his race times? How much difference does doping really have on an athlete’s performance?

It is a whistleblower story, peeling away the grandiose rhetoric of the International Olympic Committee to reveal its rotten underbelly.

The trouble is, Fogel needs an expert to teach him what to take and how to beat the testing parameters. But the experts—chemists whose life’s work has been to stop the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports—are unwilling to put their reputations on the line by working with him. That is, until one of them introduces him to Grigory Rodchenkov, head of Russia’s national anti-doping laboratory.

Rodchenkov is a character from the moment he first appears on a Skype session with Fogel, gregarious and completely unselfconscious about teaching an American filmmaker how to dope. What follows is a graphic look at the length to which some athletes will go to gain an edge on the competition.

But that’s only part of the story. As Fogel films himself doing his injections and training for a grueling race, Rodchenkov grows more and more candid about the existence of Russia’s state-sponsored Olympic doping program. The chain of command from Rodchenkov to Vladimir Putin himself is only a few men deep, and when the international media air allegations that such a program exists, Fogel realizes that his new friend faces a very real danger of being “silenced” by Putin.

On and off the screen, Fogel handles the change in mood beautifully, proving himself Rodchenkov’s greatest ally even as the cameras continue rolling. Icarus is no longer a documentary about one man’s experiment of using performance-enhancing drugs to improve his race times. It is a whistleblower story, peeling away the grandiose rhetoric of the International Olympic Committee to reveal its rotten underbelly. For anyone who watched the recent Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and noted the slap-on-the-wrist punishment that Russia received—being allowed to compete, but not under its own flag—the events that unfold in realtime in Icarus explain why.

In the Greek myth, Icarus is the boy who flew too close to the sun on wings made of wax and plummeted to the earth, a cautionary tale for anyone striving to reach beyond their rightful place in the world. In choosing that loaded name for a title, Fogel plays with audience expectations the same way that real events played with his own expectations for the kind of film he was making. Icarus isn’t the athlete looking to improve his race times, or the authoritarian leader pushing his country into greater prominence on the world stage. It’s the man in the middle, raised in the Soviet machine, ensconced in a position of prestige, who dares to fly near the sun and do the most dangerous thing of all: tell the truth.

Icarus won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2018, and is available to stream on Netflix. Vulgar language is used casually, and the injection scenes are a little graphic, but the depth and importance of the message far outweigh the profanity. I would rate it PG-13 for language.