ICARUS: “Ignorance is strength.”

ICARUS – 2017 – 121 minutes – ★★★1/2

Directed by Bryan Fogel

Oscar nomination:  Best documentary feature

Where to watch:  Streaming on Netflix

So every year I try to watch all Oscar-nominated movies in every category.  It’s a tradition I started with my son Kevin several years ago.  It has deepened our appreciation of movies.  This year I will review all nominated films leading up to the Oscar ceremony on March 4, 2018.

Some of the most powerful, and memorable movie moments I have experienced in recent years have come from movies nominated in the documentary feature category, so I have decided to start with a film from that category.

Many of us heard the news, announced in December, that all Russian athletes are banned from competition in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.    This movie explains not only how the Russians beat the anti-doping testers at the Sochi winter games, but details decades of state-sponsored doping of Russian athletes.

Funnily enough, the movie started out as something completely different.  Director Bryan Fogel set out to make a movie about doping, focusing on the world of cycling.  Fogel has been an amateur cyclist and cycling enthusiast since childhood.   The downfall of Lance Armstrong was a personal blow to Fogel, as it was to many fans of the sport.  So he set out to demonstrate how easy it could be to use banned substances in the cycling world.

Fogel participated in the most challenging amateur bike race in the world, the Haute Route.  The course is grueling, covering 500 miles in seven days, with an astonishing 65,000 feet of climbing through the French Alps.  Fogel was no slouch, finishing 14th in a field of over 400.

The movie demonstrates how he plans to institute a doping regimen, to improve his position in the next year’s race.  He is put in touch with Grigory Rodchenkov, the man who runs Russia’s anti-doping laboratory, and this is where the movie really takes off.

Fogel is put on a regimen of banned substances.  Rodchenkov gives him detailed instructions, telling him to begin saving pee samples and freezing them.  Rodchenkov then comes to the US, meets with Fogel, and smuggles the pee samples back to Russia, where he will begin the process of “cleaning” them.

Rodchenkov, Fogel and lots of pee.

It is right at this time that the first wave of the doping scandal breaks.  A documentary airs on German TV, alleging systematic doping of Russian athletes.  Rodchenkov is asked to resign his post.  He comes to the US, fearing for his safety in Russia.  He talks openly, first to Bryan Fogel, and later to the New York Times.  And he drops a pretty big bombshell, admitting that virtually every Russian athlete at the winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia was doping.   He explains how “dirty” urine samples were swapped for clean on a daily basis during the games, how supposedly tamper-proof bottles were indeed tampered with.  There is a lot of pee talk in this movie.  I can’t recall any other movie in which urine was such a major plot point.

Rodchenkov alleges that not only were Vladimir Putin and other high-ranking officials aware of the doping, but they officially sanctioned it. Other officials involved include Minister of Sport Vitaly Mutko (a man with arguably the worst hair ever, in a country with a history of bad hair.) A friend and colleague of Rodchenkov dies suddenly, under questionable circumstances.  Any student of recent Russian history will see a common thread at play here.  Putin has left a trail of questionable deaths in his wake for decades.

The movie gets off to a slow start, but is very engaging.  The key to the movie’s success is the unfettered access to Rodchenkov.  He is a fascinating guy.   Here is a man who was supposed to be running one of the most highly respected anti-doping laboratories in the world, and yet he was doing precisely the opposite.

Early in the movie, Rodchenkov struts around with cocky self-assurance, making jokes.  In later scenes, after he has fled to the US, it is clear he is shaken.  Fogel presents him in a very sympathetic light, and I’m not quite sure how I feel about that.  Fogel mentions how Rodchenkov had to leave his wife and children behind in Russia.  Leave is one word you could use.  Abandon is another one that comes to mind.  Granted, were he to travel back to Russia now that would be a death sentence.  But he was quick to fly out when the scandal broke.   Couldn’t he have made arrangements for his family to get over the border?  Their passports have been confiscated now, so they have in effect been sentenced for the crimes that he committed.   I don’t want to minimize the risks that Rodchenkov took in speaking out, but I do feel like his family got a very raw deal.

Another major thread in the movie is George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece 1984.  The book was banned in the USSR, for obvious reasons.  When Rodchenkov got his hands on a copy in 1989, it was an eye opener.  He realized that it described in exact detail how things were in Russia.  He used it as a sort of primer, a way of reconciling how he could be both the doper and anti-doper at the same time.  These elements give an added layer to the film, and help it find structure.  This movie works best as a character study, and Grigory Rodchenkov is definitely an interesting character.

It would be nice to think that the uncovering of this massive scandal will bring about change.  But as long as athletes compete, there will always be a handful who will do anything to obtain an advantage.  And as long as men like Putin are in power, endemic corruption will be the status quo.  With a new Olympic games about to start, one hopes the Olympic Oath will be honored in good faith by all.