Thursday, August 10, 2017

Movie Review: Icarus

Icarus *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Bryan Fogel.
Written by: Bryan Fogel & Jon Bertain & Mark Monroe & Timothy Rode.
Icarus, a documentary directed by Bryan Fogel, is not the film that Fogel set out to make when he started. Fortunately for him, it’s much better, deeper and more complex than the film Fogel thought he was making when he started filming himself. In the film’s first half hour (which should have been even shorter) we see the film Fogel wanted to make – as the director, a very good amateur bike racer, decides that what he wants to do is prove how easy it is to beat the sports anti-doping tests. In order to do that, he’s going to enter the Haute Route – the biggest, most difficult amateur bike race in the world, one that he did, cleanly, and came in 14th, but this time after months of taking steroids and other PEDs – to improve his performance, and beat the results. This doesn’t seem like a good idea for many (many) reasons – the biggest one may be practical – since the race is for amateurs, they don’t really test the racers, so who exactly is he trying to beat. Fortunately for Fogel though, in order to do this as safely as possible, he needs medical help – and when his original doctor (an American) backs out, he gets in contact with Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, who agrees to help him. Rodchenkov is a Russian doctor, and the head of that country’s anti-doping lab – the guy who is supposed to catch cheaters using the PEDs he’s now going to help Fogel hide. A few months into filming though – after he has become friends with Fogel – all hell breaks loose. A documentary on German TV accuses pretty much all Russian Olympic athletes of doping, and that brings down pressure of all levels of Russia’s sport – including Rodchenkov – who will eventually turn against his former bosses, and admit to everything they did to dope their athletes, and get away with it. And through it all, Fogel has a front row seat.
The documentary Fogel wanted to make isn’t really all that interesting – it’s essentially a version of Morgan Spurlock’s Super-Size Me, but for steroids, but I’m not sure what it would have proved even if it did work. After all, we all know what these PEDs do – they help the athletes – and we all know that athletes have been getting away with them for years, because they’re always one (or more) steps ahead of those trying to catch them (which is why when we hear of someone testing positive now, it’s often for years ago, as advances in testing have caught up with what athletes were doing). Doing it to himself is the hook, but not a particularly good one – especially since Fogel didn’t actually do any better (he did worse) on drugs as off of them.
But the documentary he did make, about Rodchenkov, is fascinating and tense. This is a documentarian’s dream – to have a better film than the one you want to make fall into your lap. Rodchenkov trusts Fogel, in part because who else does he know in America? When the investigation starts getting closer to him, their conversations over Skype grow tenser and short – and Rodchenkov will eventually flee Russia in order to try and keep himself safe. Others he knew, and we involved in the same scandal, mysteriously wind up dead (that happens a lot in Russia to people the government doesn’t like), and he fears for his life. Eventually, he will reveal the elaborate methods Russia went through not to be caught – especially at their home Olympics in Sochi, where Russian did way better than at the previous Winter Games. The movie morphs almost into a spy thriller – or at the very least, something more like Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour or Risk, than how things started.
There are certainly complains you could make about Icarus – it does run too long (at just over two hours), and Fogel does seem too eager to be at the center of the film, even as it becomes clear he should step aside and let Rodchenkov have center stage all to himself. In particular, that first section of the film – the film that Fogel wanted this to be – is way too long for what we get out of it. And, truth be told, all this information is already out there, so if you followed along, I’m not sure how much new information there actually is here. But overall, Icarus is a fascinating film – another chapter in the seemingly ever expanding series about doping in sports – a scandal that isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

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