Hollywood Elsewhere loves Icarus, the Russian doping doc that Netflix picked up two or three days ago. I’ve no striking observations or insights to add to the general chorus, but I can at least say that after a slow start Icarus turns into a highly gripping account of real-life skullduggery and paranoia in the sense of the classic William S. Burroughs definition of the term — i.e., “knowing all the facts.”
As noted, Bryan Fogel‘s two-hour film starts off as a doping variation of Morgan Spurlock‘s Super Size Me, and then suddenly veers into the realm of Laura Poitras‘ Citizenfour.
It doesn’t tell you anything you didn’t already know or suspect, mainly that (a) the use of performance-enhancing drugs is very common in sports (everyone does it, Lance Armstrong was the tip of the iceberg) and (b) there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between Vladmir Putin and his top henchmen and the Al Capone mob of 1920s Chicago — lying, cheating sociopaths of the highest or lowest order (take your pick).
I was a little worried during the Super Size Me portion, in which bicyclist Fogel and Russian scientist Grigory Rodchenkov embark on a project with the goal of outsmarting athletic doping tests. It’s interesting at first, but it goes on too long. After a while I was muttering “so when does the Russian doping stuff kick in?”
Suddenly it does. Rodchenkov gradually admits to Fogel that he orchestrated a Putin-sanctioned doping program that gave the Russian athletes an advantage at the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games, which led to the winning of 13 gold medals. But in November ’15 Rodchenkov’s laboratory was suspended by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) following a report alleging state-sponsored doping in Russia, and soon after Putin and the bad guys were looking to lay the blame on Rodchenkov. (Or possibly kill him.)
Fearing for his safety, Rodchenkov flies to the U.S. with Fogel’s help. Then he contributes to a major N.Y. Times story (dated 5.12.16) about Russian doping. Knowing that he’s a marked man and that Russian assassins are probably out to get him, Rodchenkov decides to accept terms of the U.S. Witness Protection Program.
Icarus is a great tale, a top-notch film and an almost certain contender for year-end awards in the feature documentary category.