Even if you don’t give a hoot about the Olympics, this sensational Oscar-winning documentary about state-sanctioned sports doping in Russia is eye-opening and riveting.
Dir. Bryan Fogel
2017 | USA | Documentary/Sport | 120 mins | 1.85:1 | English & Russian
NC16 (Netflix rating) for some mature themes
Plot: When the director set out to uncover the truth about doping in sports, a chance meeting with a Russian scientist transforms his story from a personal experiment into a geopolitical thriller.
Awards: Won Best Documentary Feature (Oscars) & Audience Award – US Documentary (Sundance)
International Sales: United Talent Agency (SG: Netflix)
Subject Matter: Moderate – Sports Doping; Politics; Whistleblowing
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
The film that left the late Agnes Varda empty-handed (for Faces Places) at the Oscars, Icarus feels very much a deserving winner of Best Documentary Feature.
Like the Oscar-winning Citizenfour (2014), also about whistle-blowing with international ramifications, Icarus tackles drug use in sports, zooming in on Russia’s involvement in state-sanctioned doping at not just one, but several Olympic Games throughout the years, perhaps even decades.
The main subject, Grigory Rodchenkov, compares himself to whistleblower par excellence Edward Snowden at one point in this eye-opening and riveting film, seeing in his actions a quest for the greater truth to emerge regardless of personal or national consequences.
Rodchenkov, who quotes regularly from Orwell’s ‘1984’, is such a fascinating figure to listen to, and for director Bryan Fogel, a person who most unexpectedly becomes the ultimate confidante, state secrets and all.
” I was doing in parallel two things which cancelled out each other and being fully contradictory. Doping and anti-doping.”
From initially wanting to test the foolproofness of the anti-doping system at an amateur long-distance cycling competition (by being a performance drug-taking guinea pig himself) to becoming the only person in the world with access to the truth about Russia’s nefarious tactics, Fogel landed on a goldmine in terms of explosive non-fiction content, all at his fingertips.
There is a lot of info to take in, including multiple investigations led by leading authorities on Rodchenkov’s allegations, but Fogel keeps it exciting through editing and a thriller-like atmosphere.
Even if you don’t give a hoot about sports or the Olympics, there’s enough in Icarus to hook any viewer interested in the precarious nature of truth as an individual pits himself against an entire system of corruption.
Fogel’s follow-up, The Dissident (2020), about the mysterious ‘disappearance’ of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, should prove to be in a similar vein as well.