Film Review: ‘Icarus’

A cyclist who set out to prove he could outsmart athletic doping tests stumbles upon one of the game's biggest cheaters in this game-changing documentary.

'Icarus' Review: Bryan Fogel's Game-Changing Doping Doc

“Just do it.” That slogan may sell shoes, but as sports mantras go, perhaps the phrase “Everybody’s doing it” might be more appropriate for what drives the international sports community today — where the “it” in question is performance-enhancing drugs. At least, that’s what’s implied by amateur cyclist-turned-cynical documentarian Bryan Fogel in his compelling new film “Icarus.” Taking a page from the Morgan Spurlock playbook, Fogel sets out to prove that he can shoot himself full of anabolic steroids and other banned substances, boost his best time, and then slip through the gauntlet of anti-doping tests that await athletes at the finish line. All he needs is an accomplice with loose enough ethical standards to guide him through the system — and that’s what makes his movie such a game-changer.

Before casting himself as a human guinea pig, Fogel reaches out to a handful of international experts. The search leads him to Grigory Rodchenkov, an amiable if baldly amoral Russian doctor who not only oversaw drug testing in Moscow’s Olympics Lab, but — per his own admission — engineered a state-sanctioned doping program that successfully gave the Russian athletes an edge at the Sochi Olympic Games, resulting in 13 gold medals. Rodchenkov is such an infectiously corrupt character that once he enters the picture, it hardly matters that Fogel’s initial premise is a bust (he actually does better on Switzerland’s daunting Haute Route the year before taking banned performance boosters).

Opines Rodchenkov: “I don’t believe the Olympic Games could be won without any kind of pharmacological support.” While that claim may be his way of justifying his own behavior, it implies that the problem is more widespread than the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) would have sports fans believe. While Lance Armstrong’s recent admission to using banned substances came as a shock to some, the widespread assumption seems to be that — like plastic surgery or cheating the scale during a weigh-in — doping is the dirty deed everyone does but no one talks about.

What this means is that training to be strongest or fastest is only part of the game, while constantly innovating to outsmart the drug tests creates a second level of competition within the world of sports — one in which the testing are constantly struggling to keep up with the science. But how to stay ahead of those tests? Despite Rodchenkov’s shocking confession, the strategy he used in order to cover for Russian athletes feels too primitive to explain how other athletes have been getting away with it all these years. Basically, the Russians collected and froze clean urine before beginning a regimen of steroid and human growth hormone injections, which Rodchenkov later substituted for the contaminated samples taken at the time of competition, using a crude system of back doors and hidden portals.

Fogel undergoes the same routine, collaborating with Rodchenkov (who’s openly delighted to be participating in such cloak-and-dagger fraud) to smuggle his urine to the Moscow lab, where it will be tested. For obvious reasons, some seemingly legit scientists opt not to play along with Fogel’s stunt, lest they divulge strategies athletes could use to return false negatives in the future. And yet, it’s clear that even their current methods are far from foolproof. For example, Don Catlin (former director of the UCLA Olympic facility) estimates that he must have tested Armstrong roughly 50 times over the years. The results came back clean every time, even though the cyclist’s own testimony suggests he’d been using substances the tests are designed to catch for much of that time.

Armstrong’s ability to avoid detection serves as Fogel’s reference point throughout the film, which includes fresh interviews with former teammates Timmy Duggan and Tyler Hamilton, as well as prominent WADA members, representing the organization that could be most negatively impacted by the film — not counting Russia, of course (but then, is anyone surprised by claims of Russian corruption?). After his own Haute Route experiment goes south, Fogel shifts his focus to the implications of Rodchenkov’s confession, erecting an elaborate Orwellian architecture to prove that the pressure to fix the Olympics came directly from Vladimir Putin.

“Icarus” divides its most incendiary segment into three chapters, labeled “learning,” “understanding,” and “acceptance,” after the Ministry of Love’s reconditioning procedures in “1984.” Featuring lively caricatures of the Russian scandal’s key players (sketched by Sam Johnson) set to ominous music by composer Adam Peters, “Icarus” casts the bulk of the blame on sports minister Vitaly Mutko. Naturally, the Russians attempt to discredit Rodchenkov, placing Fogel at the center of the international media circus — much as Laura Poitras found the Edward Snowden situation spiraling out of control during the making of “Citizenfour.”

Drawn into the controversy, Fogel actually helped to engineer Rodchenkov’s “defection” to the U.S., and is mentioned in the whistleblower’s May 2016 tell-all story to the New York Times. Now, the documentary fills in the gaps. But mostly it serves to humanize this self-confessed cheat, putting Rodchenkov’s behavior in the context of far greater corruption. Given all the attention on Russia in recent news coverage, Fogel’s Putin-centric approach will likely prove more effective than a deeper investigation into just how widespread such behavior is around the globe. But the greater takeaway is that the game itself is rigged, and the Russians only lost because they got caught.

Film Review: ‘Icarus’

Reviewed at Raleigh Studios, Jan. 12, 2017. (In Sundance Film Festial — competing.) Running time: <strong>120 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: (Documentary) An Impact Partners presentation, in association with Chicago Media Project, Diamond Docs, Alex Prods. (International sales: UTA, Los Angeles; Impact Partners, New York.) Producers: Mark Monroe, Dan Cogan, David Fialkow, Jim Swartz. Executive producers: Maiken Baird, Teddy Leifer, Timothy Rode, Craig Sims. Co-executive producers: Lagralane Group, Ken Nolan, Ken Pelletier, Jenny Raskin. Co-producers: Andrew Siegman, Monroe, David Schulhofer.
  • Crew: Director: Bryan Fogel. Writers: Fogel, Mark Monroe, Timothy Rode. Camera (color, HD): Jake Swantko, Timothy Rode. Editor: Jon Bertain. Music: Adam Peters.
  • With: Bryan Fogel, Grigory Rodchenkov, Dan Catlin, Timmy Duggan, Tyler Hamilton, David Zabriskie, Ben Stone, Scott A. Brandt, Richard McLaren. (English, Russian dialogue)