Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Icarus - when Bryan Fogel sets 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 involving dirty urine, unexplained death and Olympic Gold — exposing the biggest scandal in sports history.
"Icarus is a multi-layered and compelling piece of work." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

There's an inherent unfairness in the documentary art. Talent matters, but much more so than with features, sheer luck can sometimes intervene to turn what might have been a passably interesting film into a fascinating one. Such is Icarus, the sophomore work of a director whose modest ambition soars aloft when caught by stronger currents, so that he's dangerously exposed.

What better way to investigate the scandal of doping in cycling than by going undercover and trying to get doped up oneself? It's a thing most directors can't even consider because of the physical ability it requires, but Bryan Fogel is a keen amateur cyclist and thinks that, with a little chemical help, he could compete at the top level. After doing his research, he gets in touch with a recommended expert, Grigory Rodchenkov. They chat over Skype, immediately hitting it off, introducing one another to their dogs. This skilled doctor promises that with a testosterone-based cocktail of drugs, carefully administered so nothing shows up in tests, he can significantly improve Fogel's performance.

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Putting his body on the line for his art, Fogel undertakes a rigorous training regime and administers his own daily injections, carefully tracking his improvement, cycling alongside Rodchenkov's car. Both are heading into unknown territory. Rodchenkov just happens to be the man who, drawing on his experience as head of Moscow's drug test lab, oversaw illegal doping for the Russian Olympic team - a scandal that's about to burst wide open.

Positioned as he is, Fogel is able to record the events that follow in intimate detail, up to and including the doctor's defection to the US, which he helps to arrange. After a former colleague has an unexpected heart attack, Rodchenkov, convinced that they are being followed by the KGB, becomes seriously worried about the prospect of assassination. It gradually dawns on Fogel that he too has become a player in world events and that he's way out of his depth.

Full of insights into the practice and politics of sport, many of them gained almost accidentally, Icarus is a multi-layered and compelling piece of work. It's a must-watch for people with a direct interest in the subject. For his part, Fogel works impressively hard to keep going as things get out of control, ultimately proving to be a better documentarian than he perhaps imagined. Good editing and an eye for detail have helped to turn a vast tangle of material into a coherent film. The narrative that emerges shows how spectacularly things can spiral into disaster when individuals in positions of power refuse to accept that it's the taking part that counts.

Reviewed on: 13 Feb 2018
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A documentarian investigating doping in cycling accidentally uncovers an international Olympic scandal.

Director: Bryan Fogel

Year: 2017

Runtime: 121 minutes

Country: US

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