Talk about taking one for the team. When we think about performance-enhancing drugs, we normally think in terms of an individual athlete whose accomplishments have been tainted by their use. Barry Bonds, Marion Jones, Lance Armstrong.
Less likely to pop into one's head is the doping of young people on an institutional level. A secret government program designed to mass-produce Olympic champions, however, is precisely what Bryan Fogel wound up exposing after undertaking his debut documentary with a different outcome in mind.
Icarus opens with a quote from George Orwell: "During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act." It's not immediately clear how this relates to a fortysomething playwright, director and competitive cyclist. When we meet Fogel, he addresses the camera, shows us his bike and informs us he's slightly younger than Armstrong, his hero. "He never failed a drug test," the filmmaker reminds us.
Fogel is training for France's Haute Route, "the single hardest amateur bike race in the world." His plan is to make a film document of him doping and then passing all the drug tests that French officials administer. He means to show that "the system in place to test athletes [is] bullshit."
His search for a PED guru leads him to Grigory Rodchenkov, director of Moscow's Anti-Doping Center, who comes off as a likable dude — goofy, garrulous and unguarded. "The best laboratory will be puzzled with your piss," he promises via Skype.
Fogel expresses increasing wonderment as Rodchenkov describes tricks his lab uses to fool the World Anti-Doping Agency. He's surprised when Rodchenkov mentions that WADA is, in fact, inspecting his facility as they speak. Then, in an instant, the film shifts gears, morphing from Super Size Me into Citizenfour.
"Bryan, it's a disaster," Rodchenkov tells Fogel in November 2015. "They're killing people, cutting heads." WADA's findings have made international headlines, revealing not only Russia's state-sponsored doping program but Rodchenkov's role in it. In short order, two colleagues die under mysterious circumstances. Vladimir Putin's pissed.
Things are white-knuckle for a while, but Fogel manages to get his friend safely to the States (you'll see why this isn't a spoiler in a second). Their next stop is the New York Times, where the computer hard drives the scientist smuggled out offer proof not only that the program exists but that Putin created it.
This December, as a result of those revelations, Russia was barred from the Winter Olympic Games. Sort of. Putin is now even more pissed, and Rodchenkov is in the witness protection program. Documentaries historically spark debate or provide insight, maybe help foster change. But how often do they alter the course of world affairs in real time?
Certainly, happenstance played a role in shaping Icarus. Yet Fogel shows an impressive talent for pivoting, crafting an unplanned film on the fly and instinctively sensing the most credible and compelling means of presenting complex information. A story can fall in your lap, but it's not much good if you don't have the chops to tell it. This is a filmmaker with serious chops.
Not to mention an Academy Award nomination, a record-shattering Netflix deal and a ready-made sequel: A declassified U.S. intelligence report concluded that Russia hacked the presidential election in retaliation for U.S. involvement in unveiling its doping program. In other words, because of what's revealed in this film. Tired of waiting for Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report? A Russia investigation every bit as historic is playing on Netflix right now.