ALERT: Spoilers ahead.
Writer, director, producer, and longtime cyclist Bryan Fogel set out to film his debut documentary Icarus as a look at doping in sports; in particular, how easy it is to get away with using performance enhancing drugs in cycling. Fogel, an avid amateur cyclist, determined to do this by assembling a team of experts to help him dope for the Haute Route, one of the world’s premier multi-day alpine amateur cycling competitions, which he’d competed in the year before. This premise is interesting in itself, but it is Fogel’s journalistic nose and determination to follow it, as well as his willingness to place himself in risky situations, that make Icarus special.
During the early stages of enacting his doping routine, Fogel gets connected with Grigory Rodchenkov, the director of Moscow’s Anti-Doping Center. Via Skype, Rodchenkov helps Fogel refine his injection protocol and schedule and instructs him on the finer points of avoiding detection—a bit strange for someone who is supposed to be stopping doping in sports, not encouraging it. Of course, it turns out Rodchenkov is one of the main players, besides Vladimir Putin and a few of his top-tier cronies, in Russia’s massive sports doping operation that has been going on for decades. And when, during the filming of the movie, WADA (the World Anti-Doping Association) releases its report outlining the extent of Russia’s state-sponsored program, Fogel helps Rodchenkov, who now fears for his life, flee to the United States.
In turn, a seemingly straightforward documentary on performance-enhancing drug use in cycling turns into a fugitive film cum multifaceted expose; it’s a captivating, scary-as-hell combination that raises crucial questions about the ethics of the International Olympic Committee (which allows Russia, except for its track and field team, to compete in the 2016 Rio Olympics despite WADA’s suggested ban), Russia’s post-KGB secret police (some of Rodchenkov’s colleagues just happen to “disappear”), and the validity of televised sports. These questions are especially relevant considering the ongoing investigation of Russia’s involvement in the U.S.’s 2016 Presidential Election; unfortunately, widespread cheating doesn’t seem to be limited to athletics.
The discoveries Fogel documents are jaw dropping, but his process is just as, if not even more, important. Icarus would have been a far lesser film if not for Fogel’s impulse to 1. explore an idea he cares deeply about and 2. take a chance by shifting away from his initial expectations for that idea; it’s a lesson all documentary artists can learn from: create a structure and then risk breaking it when your gut tells you to. Icarus’s impromptu changes in direction create layers for the viewer that wouldn’t exist if Fogel had stuck to his plan and, above all else, make for an exhilarating watch.