'Icarus': Film Review | Sundance 2017

Flawed but revealing.

Bryan Fogel's sure-to-be-controversial doc focuses on the man who oversaw and then spoke out about Russia's widespread state-sponsored sports doping.

Playing like a gonzo Laura Poitras film, Jewtopia star and co-writer Bryan Fogel's first documentary pulls back the curtain on the man who was both the facilitator and whistle-blower of Russia's massive sports doping program. Having the good doctor front-and-center to reveal how he pulled off the staggering deception (just as two of his former colleagues happened to die “unexpectedly”) is the kind of major “get” that occasionally transforms a documentary into an event. But while Icarus technically doesn't break any news, it certainly scores many points by showing a diabolical wizard so surprisingly laying his secrets on the table. This is a winner with good prospects on both big and small screens.

An amateur competitive bicyclist himself, Fogel tees up his main event with an encapsulation of the Lance Armstrong story, which saw the cyclist win a whopping seven Tour de France races beginning in 1999 while increasingly devoting himself to a second career as an unwavering denier of steroid use. But he finally admitted the truth in 2013, was summarily stripped of his titles and branded as an eternal member of sports' all-time hall of shame.

In the Olympics, which are supposed to be all about the purity of sport cleansed of the contamination of money and politics, suspicions of doping had circled for years about athletes from the communist bloc. But as hanky panky behind the Iron Curtain was essentially impossible to prove, little conclusive evidence ever bubbled to the surface.

Well, not anymore. With Russia hosting the Winter Games at Sochi in 2014, there was something more than a hope that the home country would do well; it was a requirement. In the event, the local team did very well indeed, to the great pleasure of the presiding Vladimir Putin, who in short order is seen bestowing the nation's prestigious Order of Friendship upon the director of Russia's Anti-Doping Center, Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov.

The former spy-master had every reason to be pleased. As Rodchenkov demonstrates for the camera, he worked out a devious way to tamper with the Russian athletes' urine samples, the source of critical information when it comes to steroid use. So, in classic Orwellian fashion, doping's officially sanctioned watch-dog was actually the drug commissar.

Rather than tell the strange story in a disciplined, hard-charging way, Icarus has a mangy, almost home-movie feel that's both engaging and indulgent; at a full two hours, it feels padded with too much footage of Fogel himself, who at one point dabbles in an ill-advised experiment in self-administered steroid use patterned on Armstrong's protocol, which is supposed to improve athletic performance by 15 or 20 percent.

Without question, the main interest lies in the figure of Rodchenkov, an obviously gifted, sometimes garrulous, always calculating and, understandably, increasingly paranoid figure. Articulate in English, he anguishes over what's the right thing to do in the run-up to the 2016 Rio Summer Games and ultimately spills the beans to The New York Times. With the majority of Russian athletes banned for reasons that are now clear, Putin brands the doctor a “scandalous” figure and lays the blame at his feet. One can hardly fault Rodchenkov for his high anxiety as, mostly from Los Angeles hotel rooms, he plots his moves and makes revelations in ways that alternately seem keenly strategic and fatalistically casual.

The pleasure here is in learning the behind-the-scenes stories pertaining to a world customarily fronted only by athletes who, in this telling, are reduced to mere pawns in an international chess game dominated by politics, power, prestige and big bucks. The Russian athletes were put in a position where they knew they had to take steroids to win but, if history and the current leadership were to guide them, they knew they could get away with it.

Still, even as the truth became more and more obvious over the years, up to the point where Olympics administrators finally had to take a stand, it took someone like Rodchenkov to produce the facts about the extent and practices of Olympic athlete doping. If it's possible to be both morally principled and shifty at the same time, this man wins the prize, and Fogel should have realized that the Russian, and not himself, is the star of this film; some judicious cutting would help this story achieve its maximum impact.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)

Production: Impact Pictures

Director: Bryan Fogel

Writers: Bryan Fogel, Mark Monroe, Timothy Rode

Producers: Bryan Fogel, Mark Monroe, Dan Cogan, David Fialkow, Jim Swartz

Executive producers: Maiken Baird, Teddy Leifer, Timothy Rode, Craig Sims

Directors of photography: Jake Swantko, Timothy Rode

Editors: Jon Bertain, Kevin Klauber

Music: Adam Peters

Running time: 120 minutes