Icarus is not the movie that Bryan Fogel originally planned to make, and that’s a good thing. The Denver-born Fogel achieves what he sets out to prove: that the modern anti-doping movement is weak and ineffective. But unlike the film’s namesake—a character of Greek mythology who attempted to escape Crete using wings made of wax and feathers, only to fly too close to the sun and fall to his death—Fogel was able to change his flight path, and the result is a far more riveting and consequential than his original scope would have produced.
Icarus—a Netflix original released last Friday—is an intimate, inside look at the Russian doping scandal, arguably the most widespread, systemic sports doping regime ever uncovered. The saga consumed the run-up to last summer’s Rio Olympics, and is still actively unfolding, with likely impacts to February’s 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.
Icarus starts as what some reviewers have called Super Size Me with drugs: Fogel, an amateur cyclist, sets out to dope and then compete in an arduous seven-day race called the Haute Route, all while avoiding any positive tests, as a means of exposing the weaknesses of the anti-doping system. “The idea I had was to prove the system in place to test athletes was bullshit,” he says in one scene.
But less than halfway through, the movie takes a hard turn as Fogel stumbles into the middle of the rapidly unfolding Russian scandal via the expert he’s enlisted to help him cheat: Grigory Rodchenkov, former director of the Anti-Doping Centre, the Moscow testing laboratory accredited by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Rodchenkov’s willingness to help a total stranger 6,000 miles away strikes an odd note that turns out to be foreshadowing, as he becomes the central whistleblower unmasking the Russian scheme.
It’s a credit to Fogel’s skill as a storyteller that he manages to make this shift and maintain control over the story. “It was enthralling as a filmmaker to realize that this story I set out to make was going to be so much bigger and more important than I could have imagined,” he says. “But that came with a lot of stress and sleepless nights, as well as fear for my safety and Grigory’s.” (Two of Rodchenkov’s contemporaries, including Nikita Kamaev, the former head of the Russian anti-doping agency, died last year under mysterious circumstances.)
Strikingly, Icarus is just Fogel’s second film, and he is almost entirely self-taught. Fogel grew up in Denver, graduating from East High School. He started bike racing as a pre-teen, inspired by Greg LeMond’s Tour de France wins, and was a rising junior until a horrific crash cut short his career (“I lost nine teeth,” he says). He attended the University of Colorado, earning a degree in sociology, with psychology as a minor.
It was only after moving to Los Angeles that filmmaking called. “I started doing standup [comedy], which turned into acting, which turned into writing, which turned into theater,” he says. He wrote, directed, and starred in a comedy called Jewtopia that had an extraordinary run, including showing off-Broadway in New York and being turned into both a film and coffee table book.
“I learned stagecraft, but I really immersed myself in creative arts,” he says. The book taught him storyboarding, among other skills, and he likened the 20-day movie shoot to a crash film school. But the lesson he learned best was that comedy is the key to an audience’s heart. “If you make an audience laugh, they’ll stick around for the emotional journey.”
That’s what makes Icarus work. As part of Fogel’s initial plan to dope, he attempts to enlist the help of Don Catlin, an American pioneer of anti-doping science. Catlin ultimately backs out, but fatefully connects Fogel with Rodchenkov, who becomes Fogel’s primary co-conspirator and, before long, the film’s central character.
Rodchenkov is an extremely flawed hero. He was, after all, directly responsible for vital aspects of the long-running Russian doping scheme, including “disappearing” positive tests by prominent Russian athletes, devising a potent cocktail of drugs, and helping to oversee the elaborate ruse at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, where Russian intelligence agents swapped dirty test samples for clean ones in the middle of the night. Rodchenkov estimates this scheme helped Russia win many of its 33 medals, the most at the Games. And his motives are openly questioned by WADA officials when, at a meeting, Fogel outlines the scheme and Rodchenkov’s evidence of it.
But Fogel presents him as a scruffy, lovable rogue. Part of Rodchenkov’s charm is his change of heart; after an early WADA report that implicates him, he becomes the primary source bringing the Russian scheme to light, despite considerable personal sacrifice. But we also see him in more disarming, personal light: joking with Fogel on camera and in Skype calls; dancing with family (and Fogel) at a party when Fogel visits Russia; and in tense, emotional conversations with his wife and with Fogel as the scandal spills out publicly and pressure builds on the entire Russian sport and anti-doping establishment.
Much of Icarus is dark and troubling; it will certainly make you question what you see when you watch the Olympics and whether the World Anti-Doping Agency, or any governing body, is really able to ensure that pro sports are anywhere close to clean. And Fogel is clear in his distaste for the International Olympic Committee and what he sees as its cynical abdication of its commitment to clean athletes by letting the Russian Olympic team compete in Rio. “I think if society knowingly allows cheating, it calls into question not just sport integrity but how we live our lives,” he says.
Icarus is also compelling drama, even at almost two hours long. In addition to solid storytelling and intimate, cinema vérité technique, Fogel makes smart use of animated graphics to clearly show how the elaborate scheme worked. But some of the most powerful scenes are simple in-person conversations with Rodchenkov, or Skype calls where the Russian scientist expresses fears for his safety.
Fogel is still a fan of sports. “I think fans care [about anti-doping],” he says. “Underneath that, I think people love sports and they should.” But Icarus provides no easy answers, and Fogel doesn’t try to offer an uplifting ending. “I don’t see an easy solution,” he says of the anti-doping problem. Icarus ultimately stands as a kind of warning: “It’s a metaphor in life,” Fogel says. “It extends to Russia, to the Olympics, or to how any empire falls—pushing boundaries too far and too long.” Eventually, the wings melt, and we fall.