' ' Cinema Romantico: Icarus

Tuesday, September 12, 2017


The production of Netflix’s documentary “Icarus”, the feature film debut of playwright Bryan Fogel, was cursed and blessed, and perhaps inevitably the curse and the blessing trickle down to the film itself which is as raggedy as it is scintillating, though even its scintillating parts vacillate between something like a docu-thriller and an ungainly information dump. And that’s because “Icarus” was forced to kind of re-form in the middle of its making, which renders its opening sort of superfluous, though not completely, because the opening not only sets the stage for the rest of it but makes sense of how we get to the rest of it in first place.

“Icarus” opens with Fogel, an amateur cyclist, angered and intrigued by how his cycling idol Lance Armstrong could have both brazenly cheated and yet never officially been caught doping, concocting the idea of cheating to win as a means to expose the whole rickety testing system as the fraudulent uselessness it really is. To expose the system, however, he needs someone inside it, and finds him in Grigory Rodchenkov, the director of Moscow’s Anti-Doping Centre, who has no qualms about and endless means of getting around the system, a red flag even if you didn’t know who Rodchenkov was going in. Fogel’s escapade to game an amateur cycling contest by cheating fails because his bike breaks down, never mind that the footage fails to effectively dissect what doping entails, seemingly leaving his own doc dead in the water, until he scores a celestial coup.

That happens when WADA (World Anti Doping Association), releases a report claiming Russia’s involvement in a state sponsored doping, a la the fallen GDR athletic empire, putting the life of Rodchenkov, fired by Putin and his minions as a means to take the fall, in danger and forcing him to flee to America. And so “Icarus” morphs from “Super Size Me” to “Citizenfour” as Fogel gives Rodchenkov a platform to divulge the myriad rules he broke in aiding in Russia’s quest for Olympic Gold. These sequences are nothing much more than exposition, not to mention already covered in the 2016 NYT story we see Rodchenkov planning, though that is less of a problem than Fogel’s slanted viewpoint. Granted, his desire to aid a human whose life is literally in danger is wholly commendable, yet it simultaneously renders him blind to Rodchenkov’s seemingly sordid ethics as the filmmaker refuses to truly push his subject when asking questions.

When Fogel meets with a conference room full of WADA officials, he states the former Russian anti-doping director is sorry. “He’s sorry?” asks a WADA official, bewilderingly incredulous. And though Fogel contends that his subject is, I’m not entirely sure this is true, considering we never hear Rodchenkov say it, and considering the air he emits, both before and after the scandal breaks, is decidedly un-apologetic, more merrily setting-the-record-straight. Listen to Rodchenkov when Fogel asks on camera if he is guilty of what everyone says. “Of course,” says Rodchenkov, sort of tossing his head back, a body motion “duh” to go with the “of course.” It’s so obvious, in other words, didn’t everyone know already? This, his whole disposition, suggests is how the game was, is, and will be played.

Fogel leans a little too heavily on George Orwell’s “1984”, which turns out to be Rodchenkov’s favorite book, and which the Russian is heard digressing about in voiceover and seen reading in un-breathless shots, framing the latter half of “Icarus” around Orwell’s satirical implementation of Learning, Understanding and Acceptance. It leans too heavily because the film impresses these ideas upon you in spite of the overt literary references, with Rodchenkov’s pointed lack of regret suggesting he has accepted doping’s immovable place in the modern athletics landscape, and suggesting that society’s refusal to accept it means we are merely fooling ourselves.

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