Thursday, February 22, 2018

“Icarus”– Movie Review


This week at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center, I attended a special screening of the Netflix documentary “Icarus”.


When a documentarian tries to make a film about performance enhancing drugs, he accidentally stumbles upon a secret that creates a worldwide scandal.


Bryan Fogel, long time documentarian and cycling fan, was for years fascinated by the many achievements of famed Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong.  When it became public knowledge that Armstrong had cheated by using PEDs (Performance Enhancing Drugs), Fogel became intrigued and thought it would be interesting to make a film about the extent to which these drugs could actually impact an athlete’s ability to compete.  In order to have a baseline against which to measure, Fogel participated in a multi-day cycling competition for amateurs called Haute Route.  It was no surprise to him that he finished with rather mediocre results. 

Fogel then sought out experts from the Olympics who had experience with checking for these types of drugs and knew which ones were best.  His goal was to then take the drugs and race Haute Route again to compare the difference.  Although he was able to collect a considerable amount of useful information, Fogel ran into a dead end when he tried to get their assistance to effectively serve as a “doping coach” – none of them wanted to touch a situation like that.  One productive outcome from this was that he was referred to Grigory Rodchenkov, a scientist who was the director of a Russian lab that was approved by WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency), an organization that vetted laboratories such as this to test for drugs that Olympic athletes might use.

Grigory was glad to share his knowledge and experience with Fogel and agreed to help him with the little experiment for his documentary.  Over time, however, it became clear that Grigory was sitting on information that would soon become an international incident once it was uncovered:  the Russian athletes had been getting away with doping their Olympic athletes for many years.  Fogel not only recorded many interviews with Grigory about what the Russians did and how they got away with it, he helped Grigory get in touch with the American news media to report what he knew.  But will the Russian government let Grigory get away with this or would they exact revenge?


“Icarus” is one of the most draw-dropping documentaries of our time and needs to be seen immediately.  It is easy to see why this has been nominated for awards.  Obviously, its relevance goes far beyond merely the Olympics, although it’s quite a fortunate coincidence that the 2018 Olympics are ongoing at the time of this screening.  The doping scandal is just a microcosm of typical Russian behavior and illustrates a larger issue of the depths of dishonesty to which they will sink.  After seeing this movie, you don’t need the U.S.A.’s Intelligence Community to tell you that they meddled in the 2016 Presidential campaign. 

As Grigory himself said in the movie, if the Russians deserve a gold medal in anything, it’s cheating.  He fully admits his complicity as well as that the government has been doing this long before Putin took over – they estimate doping goes back at least as far as the 1968 Olympics, if not earlier.  The film is very endearing, both in terms of Grigory’s sincerity and his friendship with the filmmaker, which seems equally genuine.  What makes the ending even more tragic is the fact that the two men are unable to communicate directly any longer because the federal government placed Grigory in the witness protection program in order to keep him safe from any Russian government operatives who may be out to do him harm.

Following the screening there was an interview with producer Dan Cogan and director Bryan Fogel.  Fogel said they deliberately made the choice to omit any reference to the 2016 election because it would appear to be pontificating.  It seems getting one over on authorities gives the Russian government the feeling of power; in the case of the Olympics, it was soft power, but in the case of the Presidential Election, it was hard power.  He mentioned that they can only communicate with Grigory through a lawyer for his safety.  The whirlwind promotion schedule that he has been on has kept him from giving any thought to his next project.  Although saying he was a cyclist for 30 years, he admitted that he had quit the sport for quite some time before taking it up again solely for the purpose of this movie.

Icarus (2017) on IMDb

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