Netflix's Icarus Is A Rabbit Hole Into One of The Biggest Scandals In Sports History
It started out as something like Supersize Me, but with performance-enhancing drugs instead of cheeseburgers. In the first few minutes of Icarus, a Netflix documentary that premiered on August 4, director and amateur cyclist Bryan Fogel sets out to make a gonzo-style documentary that would demonstrate how easy it was for Lance Armstrong to get away with doping. With the help of doctors and specialists, Fogel, who once looked up to Armstrong, put himself through a doping regimen and a process that allowed him to test negative for amateur cycling events. It was to be a white-hat hack of cycling as a sport.
But among the specialists that Fogel consulted for his experiment was Grigory Rodchenkov, the former director of an anti-doping lab in Moscow. And as it turned out, Rodchenkov had been one of the masterminds of a huge, game-breaking doping operation in the Sochi Winter Olympics of 2014. He was ready to help Fogel expose the ease by which athletes could fly under the radar of most sporting events, including the Olympics; and also that the Kremlin had a part in it.
What follows and continues throughout the documentary is a first-hand look at how, after meeting Fogel, Rodchenkov would flee to America in 2016 to blow the whistle on Russian state-sponsored, Olympic-level doping. It’s a series of events that would put Rodchenkov’s life in danger, and even implicate Russian President Vladimir Putin himself.
Through its thorough investigation, its sharp editing, and its score, Icarus plays out this narrative in the way a conspiracy thriller would (as opposed to how a traditional documentary would), and so is compelling at every step of the way. At one point, it even begins to heavily reference George Orwell’s 1984—which might come off as a little too dramatic until you learn what Russia’s record-breaking wins at Sochi did for Putin’s approval ratings.
It does, however, clock in at just about two hours long, which is pretty damn long for a documentary. Some parts do tend to drag on for a bit, but if you pay attention and stick around, the payoff becomes palpable in the level of intimacy that the director stumbled into. Fogel found himself in the center of the Russian doping scandal fortuitously, so he was with Rodchenkov all the way. That’s why Icarus doesn’t feel like some documentarian trying to explain the issue and profile Rodchenkov; it doesn’t feel like a third-person perspective of an issue. Rather, it sticks to the gonzo format it set out to achieve and brings you up close with the crucial moments of the scandal unfolding, including lawyers, hideouts, and KGB building schematics. And perhaps most importantly, Icarus forces you to consider the implications of Russia’s Machiavellian manipulations—a consideration that couldn't be more timely.