Bryan Fogel has to be the luckiest filmmaker in the history of documentaries.
What began as a quest to see how easy it would be to get away with doping in cycling–hoping to expose the ineffective anti-doping mechanisms in place–turned into a headfirst stumble upon one of the biggest sporting scandals in all of sporting history. And there Fogel was, camera in hand, at the genesis of the Russian government-sanctioned doping allegations.
Icarus, released August 4th of 2017, begins with Fogel’s preparations:
he wants to see if he, a talented amateur cyclist, could use chemical enhancements to boost his performance in an illustrious amateur race he had brawled with the year prior. Fogel wants to dope without getting caught, and then expose the results in documentary structure.
He consults with a team of experts who in turn guide him to the director of the Moscow Anti-Doping Center, Grigory Rodchenkov. Rodchenkov readily agrees to assist Fogel and offers his services completely. Fogel couldn’t have imagined a better referral; not only does Rodchenkov have a store of knowledge on doping that he is happy to share–what to take, how much of it, when, where, how long to wait before testing–but he is an eclectic, personable, and entirely unself-conscious character. He says exactly what he is thinking, maintains a budding relationship with Fogel’s dog throughout the film, and is more-often-than-not roaming around the screen shirtless, his big belly declaring his confidence. A filmmaker’s dream.
Russia-based Rodchenkov helps LA Fogel over Skype sessions, and even goes so far as to smuggle Fogel’s urine on a plane ride back to Moscow in order to test it in the Moscow Anti-Doping Center facilities. Questions begin to surface: how does Rodchenkov, the director of the Anti-Doping Center of one of the major players in the Olympics, know so much about how to get away with doping? Why is he sharing his knowledge with Fogel?
The relationship between Rodchenkov and Fogel increases to the point where Rodchenkov openly admits on camera that practices such as the ones between him and Fogel were taking place large-scale in Russia with the Olympic athletes, and that he himself–as director of what was actually a government-sanctioned doping operation–played a massive role in this.
Soon Wada (World Anti-Doping Association) releases a huge allegation against the Moscow Anti-Doping Center and exposes the full extent of chemical enhancements of Russian athletes during the Olympic games. State-sponsored chemical enhancements. Wada names Rodchenkov as one of the foremost players behind the operation.
The documentary shifts even more.
“Bryan, it’s a disaster, they’re just killing people, cutting off heads.”
Rodchenkov’s colleagues are murdered, his own life is threatened, and his family is in danger. The Russian government is desperately attempting to cut away loose threads and clear it’s name, as the status of Russian athletic involvement in the Rio Olympic games is threatened to be retracted.
In a high-stress scene, Rodchenkov flees to the United States where Bryan Fogel is waiting to usher him to safety. Rodchenkov reveals everything: Vladimir Putin’s role in the doping operations, how exactly it was that Russian athletes came out clean, his own role in the process, the geopolitics behind it all.
The film is no longer about Fogel’s personal quest.
George Orwell’s 1984 plays a pivotal role in the structuring and thematic elements of Icarus. Routinely Rodchenkov quotes lines from the text and explains how the themes in Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece mirror the reality of life in Russia. The massive shift in Icarus is much like the shift in 1984. Fogel is modern-day Winston Smith; at the beginning of the film, he experiences dissonance but cannot begin to comprehend the level of complexity his dissonance will tap into.
When Rodchenkov reveals the doping practices and Wada comes forth with life-threatening allegations, it is almost as if we can hear the voice of 1984’s party-leader O’Brien:
“There are three stages in reintegration,” said O’Brien. “There is learning, there is understanding, and there is acceptance. It is time for you to enter upon the second stage.”
The film dangles at the end, with Rodchenkov entering into the United States witness protection program, his wife and children still in Moscow under careful observation from the Russian government. It is disconcerting, as it renders the viewer hankering for a more concrete closure, but it aligns with the ambiguous ending of 1984, so in this regard it is immensely effective.
Add this one to the Holiday family queue, folks.
Peace and Blessings,