Movie Review: Icarus

Vladimir Putin and Russia are in the news, the Oscars are around the corner and so is the Cape Town Cycle Tour… which makes the Oscar-winning sports documentary, Icarus, as topical as the day it released. This bold film tracks Bryan Fogel, a budding amateur cyclist who decided to investigate doping in cycling by becoming the test subject himself. After Lance Armstrong was stripped of 7 Tour de France titles and an Olympic bronze medal following a doping scandal, Fogel made it his mission to find out just how corrupt the world of cycling had become. Armstrong was an inspirational figure and hero to many, including the gutsy Fogel, who decided to expose the sport’s dirty secret by diving headlong in a Gonzo style stunt with the co-operation of top anti-doping expert, Don Catlin.

Unfortunately, the documentary concept didn’t quite catch. The first obstacle was that Don Catlin got cold feet when he realised the documentary stunt would put his legacy as one of the world’s top anti-doping experts on the line. He bowed out, giving Fogel an in with another inside man. The physical act of doping also proved to be somewhat problematic with Fogel having to self-medicate with varying injections. Then to cap it off, an equipment failure on an important race day seemed to capsize the doping in cycling experiment altogether. While everything seemed to be working against the filmmaker and his self-study into becoming a chemically-enhanced super athlete, a bigger story was just about to break. Many great documentaries get sidetracked and Icarus is one them as it transforms from a personal experiment into a geopolitical thriller.

Flowing with the current, cycling turned to Olympic track and field as his shadowy contact’s reputation fades in and an international doping scandal implicates the infamous Russian scientist, former head of the Anti-Doping Center. Grigory Rodchenkov is an absolute character, whose clownish and comical disposition is the complete antithesis of his stony-faced leader, Vladimir Putin. Taken from Fogel’s vantage point, the camera swings from him to his eccentric technical advisor, Rodchenkov, the subject of a damning German documentary on doping.

Having been at the forefront of Russian sporting prowess for decades, he was a kingpin who knew how to cheat the system, aware of all the back room politics and dark secrets. There to assist Fogel wholeheartedly, Rodchenkov must have realised his days were numbered, deciding to come clean and risking everything. A fearless investigative piece, the filmmakers are just as brave as Rodchenkov, referencing George Orwell’s 1984 in its critical assessment of Russia’s long-running doping saga.

icarus movie

“You’re literally taking the piss.”

The state-sponsored doping programme riddled Russia’s sporting endeavours, culminating in the infamous 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics where the host’s gold medals stacked up high. Coasting on this winner’s high, this was also the year that the Russo-Ukranian War began with the annexation of Crimea and the War in Donbas. Icarus acknowledges the beginning of this conflict with Rodchenkov feeling some responsibility for his part in Russia’s crowning achievements, which could have triggered Putin’s war-mongering. Years on, the conflict has now escalated to a full scale invasion of Ukraine with Icarus giving viewers some curious insights into Putin and his government’s doublethink.

Fogel keeps the reins on this shape-shifting sports documentary that keeps its focus on the over-arching doping story as it continues to morph into a critical turning point in sporting history. Icarus is an eye-opening and suspenseful chronicle turned confessional of the Russian doping scandal through the ages. It’s an engaging and entertaining sports documentary composed of video conference chats, news footage, visual effects, phone recordings and montage sequences. Something of a character study on Rodchenkov’s complex life, the stakes are raised when he decides to tell-all with his fellow countrymen dismissing him as a lunatic.

Icarus moves at a steady pace, constantly evolving and infotaining with its deep dive into doping and anti-doping in world sport. While a long documentary at just over 2 hours, there’s rarely a dull moment, fueled by scandals, espionage, state secrets and dirty politics. The focus may be on sport but the documentary is handled in such an entertaining and compelling fashion, it should appeal to just about anyone. While Fogel was training to win gold with banned performance-enhancing drugs and hormone therapy, it seems quite ironic that the filmmaker eventually did based on his failure to do so.

The bottom line: Gripping