Has there ever been a documentary filmmaker as fortuitous as Bryan Fogel? I don’t mean to denigrate his work by suggesting it was all just dumb luck that resulted in his debut documentary, Icarus, ending up as explosive as it does: he definitely picked a topic with lots of potential for unearthing explosive things. But he cannot possibly have anticipated what would actually happen… and, indeed, the film itself depicts this when we watch him onscreen, dumbfounded, watching news events unfold that not only directly impact the story he’s trying to tell but which land him smack in the middle of one of the biggest stories in sports news, and indeed in geopolitical news, of the young 21st century.
Fogel (who previously made the deeply terrible narrative film Jewtopia) set out to use himself as a guinea pig, Super Size Me–style, in an investigation into doping in sports. A serious but nonprofessional cyclist, he wanted to find out how shooting up testosterone and other drugs would affect his performance in the Haute Route, a French amateur cycling race that is like the hardest days of the Tour de France all smushed together into a week: it’s incredibly grueling. To help him explore not only how athletes use performance-enhancing drugs but also how athletes game the testing system — “they’re all doping,” one expert says here; “it’s really easy to beat [the testing]” — he enlisted scientist Grigory Rodchenkov, who headed up a massive Russian anti-doping laboratory.
For a long while, Icarus is not immensely riveting: Fogel appears at first to have made a movie out of a fetish for collecting and storing his urine, Howard Hughes–style — you know, for testing — although he does at least have a sense of humor about this. But then everything changes when, in late 2015, after Fogel had been working with Rodchenkov for more than a year and had developed a close friendship with him, the enormous “Russia is state-sponsoring doping of its athletes” scandal broke — the scandal that was still not yet resolved with the just-wrapped PyeongChang Winter Olympics. And suddenly, Fogel has an unexpectedly insidery perspective on the Russian doping scandal, because he’s not only friends with Rodchenkov, the very man right at the center of it, but–
Well, I’ll leave you to discover just how deeply Fogel is involved. Suffice to say that Icarus pivots into a real-life spy thriller, complete with sinister government agents, mysterious deaths, rampant paranoia, and a “legal counsel to the filmmakers” appearing as a talking head. Fogel gets Rodchenkov to open up on camera about how he and his Russian colleagues did what they did; “we are top-level cheaters,” he says, not proudly. And then it all gets even more insidious, because they were taking orders from on high, and… well, damn. Doping in sports may be some sneaky, shifty shit that undermines the positive cultural narratives that can accompany sports; see Alex Gibney’s brilliant documentary about Lance Armstrong, The Armstrong Lie. But the story Icarus has to tell goes way beyond sports. This is like a Matrix-esque red pill that pulls back the curtains from our eyes to let us see a war happening all around us. The film suggests that Russian cheating on the global sports stage has been happening for decades… but that in recent years, Vladimir Putin has used it as a propaganda weapon in an ongoing war against the West. And if that is true… well, things are very much worse than any of us have imagined.
Icarus won a Special Jury Award at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it debuted before it was snapped up by Netflix; the jury created the “Orwell Award” for it, which is absolutely fitting. It was also nominated at the BAFTAs, and it’s in the running for Best Documentary at this coming Sunday’s Oscars. It is in many ways perfectly illustrative of the serendipitous nature of documentary filmmaking, and of the fingers-crossed, hope-we-get-a-good-story-out-of-this, seat-of-the-pants nature of the discipline. I don’t know if that makes it the best documentary of the year, but it might be the most documentary documentary in a long time.