Among his many “accomplishments,” Donald Trump has once more emboldened Russia, courtesy of the ongoing collusion scandal that has shined a spotlight not only on his team’s desire for power at any cost but also on the eagerness of Vladimir Putin’s regime to do whatever it deems necessary to achieve its ends.
Only the most willfully blinkered believes that Putin’s administration operates on the up and up, given that the murderous depths of their nefarious scheming and double-dealing are constant topics of domestic media discussion. For those still not convinced of that foreign power’s institutionalized deceitfulness, Netflix now delivers incriminatory proof of its win-at-any-cost mentality with Icarus, a documentary that makes plain the lengths to which our former Cold War enemies will go in order to subvert the rule of law in their pursuit of triumph and conquest.
The playing field in question here, however, isn’t presidential politics but Olympic athletics. Bryan Fogel’s non-fiction work, which first premiered at January’s Sundance Film Festival, began as a Super Size Me-style stunt. An “amateur” cyclist—“amateur” deserving quotes because he raced in events that were only a single step removed from Tour de France-grade professional—Fogel was frustrated by his inability to crack the top ten in the arduous Haute Route event (a seven-day trek through the French Alps). Having long idolized Lance Armstrong, he decided to expose the sport’s pitiful drug-testing standards by designing and following a strict regimen of HGH and testosterone that would give him a leg up against his (supposedly enhanced) competition. It was a plot of self-inflicted juicing, aimed, he claims, at proving that no matter the athletics organizations’ anti-doping stances, cheating remains rampant and easily accomplished.
Left unaddressed in Icarus is the inescapable impression that Fogel (who directed, co-wrote and stars in the doc) embarked on this mission, in part, so that he could improve his performance, just like Armstrong, Barry Bonds, and Marion Jones did when they too injected banned substances into their asses under the care of specialists. And yet along his way to parroting Morgan Spurlock—albeit with a point to make that’s more important than “McDonald’s is bad for you”—the filmmaker unwittingly stumbled upon a much bigger story. And it came via the individual enlisted to help him evade cycling’s powers-that-be.
Thanks to a recommendation from UCLA Olympic Laboratory chief Don Catlin, Fogel in 2014 hooked up with Grigory Rodchenkov, a colleague of Catlin’s who ran Russia’s Anti-Doping Centre lab. A gregarious expert with a bushy mustache and a graying mop of hair who shared Fogel’s love of dogs, Rodchenkov was eager to provide guidance to Fogel first via Skype, and then in person, with the two meeting in Los Angeles and then at Russia’s Anti-Doping Centre, in order to perfect a hormonal system that would go undetected by doping inspectors. It was a meticulously arranged clandestine operation involving Fogel creating numerous urine samples and Rodchenkov smuggling some of them back to his homeland (“I am Mafia. This is Mafia,” says the Russian doping pro). Though it didn’t beget actual results on the cycling tour—Fogel finished 27th in the 2014 Haute Route, after having placed 17th in 2013—it did accomplish its primary goal: his drug tests all came back negative.
As they began further honing their Fogel-as-Guinea-pig plans, however, the larger world intruded on their lives, and that’s when Icarus gets truly fascinating—and eye-opening.
On December 4, 2014, German television aired a documentary titled How Russia Makes Its Winners that accused the country of running a statewide operation to ‘roid-up its athletes (all its athletes) without being caught. And who was at the center of that operation? Rodchenkov, of course! The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and International Olympic Committee (IOC) took quick notice, and a year later, the latter’s independent commission (run by Dick Pound) concluded that the overwhelming number of accusations made by the German movie were true. “It’s worse than we thought,” Pound announced at the time.
Rodchenkov thus became both a target of WADA and the IOC, and a liability for Russia—and thus a man suddenly in Putin’s murderous crosshairs. To avoid assassination (a fate that befell a colleague shortly thereafter), he snuck out of his country with the aid of Fogel to Los Angeles. There, he met with lawyers and The New York Times to reveal the extent of Russia’s cheating ways, which, as he explains in stunning detail, peaked at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, where FSB (former KGB) agents assisted the execution of elaborate urine-sample switcheroos that hid Russia’s doping from monitors. According to Rodchenkov, every single Russian athlete was guilty of this infraction, meaning the country’s 13 gold medals were all tainted.
Icarus follows Rodchenkov and Fogel as they struggle to turn him into a heroic whistleblower in the vein of Edward Snowden (whose legal counsel is consulted by Rodchenkov’s team). And, bolstered by riveting in-the-thick-of-it proximity, the film serves as a pulse-pounding insider’s view of both Russian duplicity and the mortal perils of speaking out against it. Though his decision to have Rodchenkov routinely read passages from his favorite book—George Orwell’s 1984—feels a bit too on-the-nose for a tale about underhanded authoritarian deception, Fogel’s material plays as a real-life thriller, told in an on-the-ground verité style that’s rarely lacking in momentum or suspense.
What is missing, notably, is a critique of both Rodchenkov and Fogel themselves. Icarus is so caught up in depicting the duo’s efforts to tear down Russia and evade death that it fails to adequately wrestle with the fact that both men are ethically compromised cheaters themselves, and ones whose anti-Russian-doping course was charted not by a sense of morality, but rather by necessity. Fogel’s film shies away from the obvious point that Rodchenkov is hardly a saintly prophet; he’s merely a man who ratted out his bosses after he thought they were going to kill him. By refusing to turn the cameras on Rodchenkov and himself (he was a committed doper, after all, happily in league with Rodchenkov), Fogel somewhat undercuts Icarus’ portrait of righteous risk and sacrifice in the face of immense threats.
Nonetheless, for those who cherish honesty, fair play, and upright athletic competition, the film—which ends with IOC president Thomas Bach ignoring WADA’s recommendations to expel Russian competitors from the 2016 Rio games—is a must-see exposé about systematic corruption and failure on both sides of the doping issue. Not to mention, it’s more conclusive evidence that when it comes to breaking any and all laws in order to get what they want, Russia continues to have few equals. It’s a damning indictment only Donald Trump would dismiss as “fake news.”