Bryan Fogel’s Icarus is a tale of lies, deception and murder with stakes worthy of its Greek antecedent. Seeking to expose the curse of blood doping in his beloved cycling, the filmmaker hurtles dangerously close to the sun before stumbling upon one of the biggest conspiracies in sporting history.
It is a bold, quite extraordinary documentary which unfurls before our eyes and – to a large degree – to the complete surprise of the director himself. Its spontaneity and uncertain evolution are both gripping and slightly terrifying given that what becomes a quest for truth could just as likely see its subjects killed or imprisoned as set free. The vehicle used for this complicated and dangerous scheme are not wings made from feathers and wax but a carbon fibre bike, testosterone and human growth hormones. Fogel – a gifted athlete in his own right – sets out to explore the ease with which tests for performance enhancing drugs can be beaten.
After finishing 14th in the gruelling seven-day Haute Route amateur cycling race in the French Alps, he is convinced the difference between the leading pack and those chasing is of a chemical nature so embarks upon an Armstrong-esque doping programme. Beholding this purposeful and brazen disregard for the rules is as astonishing as it is intriguing but events take a real turn for the bizarre with the introduction of Russian scientist Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of his nation’s Anti-Doping Centre who assists Fogel – the twisted paradox in this case being that he also was head of supplying PEDs to athletes across all winter and summer Olympics with the artificial tools needed to succeed in their respective trades.
Rodchenkov, clearly a deeply intelligent man, possesses a joker-like sense of humour and could even be a little mad but the hypocrisy of his position and the rotten core unveiled at the heart of Russian government is far from a laughing matter. It is a revelatory documentary shown on German television that first opens the proverbial can of worms, marking the shift from covert scheme to full-on whistleblowing operation. We have first-hand access to the linchpin in this geopolitical catastrophe but is he a reliable witness? Why, all of a sudden, is he so keen to reveal this sensitive material after years in the business? Does he show any remorse for his part in this conspiracy?
He is a mercurial, but essentially very likeable, figure who does recognise his part in the decades’ long deceit: “We are top level cheaters,” he later says to Fogel in direct interview. Using Orwell’s 1984 as a playbook of sorts, whether Grigory’s crise de conscience comes through self-preservation or sincere regret is unclear but his joy in sticking it to his bare-chested, bear-riding head of state is gleeful, though tinged with fear at the consequences it could engender. A strong addition to the ever-growing Netflix Original production line, Icarus follows last year’s 13th and this year’s Casting JonBenet and Strong Island into an impressive canon of documentaries.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens