“Icarus” starts out as one kind of movie, and then becomes a much better one. At first, director Bryan Fogel seems intent on making the sporting world’s answer to “Super Size Me,” by subjecting himself to performance-enhancing drugs to see if he can avoid detection. But then he stumbles into shocking revelations about Russia’s massive doping conspiracy and the scenario gets dark, gripping, and altogether more important.
The jarring shift doesn’t quite rescue the movie from uneven storytelling and murky research, but “Icarus” undoubtedly succeeds at emphasizing the shocking nature of Russia’s cover-up — and the dangerous reverberations it has for a key whistleblower.
That would be Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, the antidoping laboratory chief who eventually fled to the United States and leaked information about Russia’s tactics for burying its athletes’ use of performance-enhancing drugs to a group of New York Times reporters in early 2016. Fogel initially gets in touch with Rodchenkov prior to those revelations, with the filmmaker asking for help with his innocuous experiment. From there, the nearly two-hour saga shifts into a Kafkaesque thriller that involves no less than the shadowy maneuverings of Vladimir Putin.
At first, the dynamic between Fogel and Rodchenkov takes center stage as a peculiar kind of buddy comedy, with the pair bonding over a series of colorful Skype conversations that range from discussions of urine samples to comparing each other’s dogs. Then things get more serious, with the eccentric Rodchenkov admitting his situation has grown dire, and Fogel winds up with a ringside seat to Rodchenkov’s decision to become a whistleblower.
Needless to say, Fogel’s attempt to turn himself into a muscular lab rat falls by the wayside. And that’s just as well; the half-dozen scenes of Fogel injecting himself in his abs and buttocks, then monitoring his results as he bikes through evocative landscapes, play like filler in the buildup to a superior drama. Instead, he casts himself as the central witness to this shocking drama, but the decision to overhaul the movie’s focus also calls into question why he allows the first half’s weaker aspects so much airtime.
The obvious precedent here is Laura Poitras’ “Citizenfour,” and at its best “Icarus” makes a similarly intense case for the personal reverberations of revealing governmental misdeeds. At other times, the comparison is a little too obvious. “I feel like Snowden,” Rodchenkov says at one point, and Fogel clearly fashions himself as the Poitras in that dynamic, cobbling together scene after scene of frantic conversations with Rodchenkov and various legal aides as his situation grows increasingly dire. Even after he’s forced to flee to the United States, Rodchenkov’s safety remains uncertain.
Once he sits down to talk through his revelations, the governmental cover-up is astounding. But while “Citizenfour” set the bulk of its suspense around a heated conversation in a hotel room, Fogel spaces out these events across a jagged timeline. The movie often feels like a montage of fragmented conversations, with the men driving around and engaged in nervous debates about their next steps, which makes the dramatic construction altogether too obvious. Fogel’s only other filmmaking credit, the romcom “Jewtopia,” doesn’t suggest the makings of a sophisticated nonfiction storyteller, and “Icarus” suffers from an imitative quality that’s hard to shake.
Fortunately, Rodchenkov’s dilemma single-handedly keeps “Icarus” engaging throughout. We’ve seen a version of this drama before — and we know how it ends for the people with the best intentions.
Around the one-hour mark, “Icarus” transforms into compelling portrait of Russia’s doping scandal through Rodchenkov’s personal framework. At this point, Fogel’s confidence in the material shows, and the drama blossoms into a fascinating exposé that invokes nearly every powerful figure in the upper reaches of Russia’s government. While earlier movies such as “Bigger, Stronger, Faster” and Alex Gibney’s “The Armstrong Lie” unearthed alarming revelations about the doping industry in the United States, the focus of “Icarus” involves the dangerous maneuverings of Putin and the KGB, with Rodchenkov’s nervous testimony speaking volumes about the corruptive abilities of unchecked power. In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, it couldn’t be more timely.
Ultimately, it’s a hell of a story: Rodchenkov’s revelations encompass two editions of the Olympics and even a major war. In Fogel’s lively assemblage of media reports set to Rodchenkov’s voiceover, it emerges that Russia’s ability to dominate the Sochi Olympics allowed Putin’s flailing approval numbers to skyrocket, giving him the confidence to invade Ukraine. Spotted in bountiful media coverage beaming with pride, Putin remains a phantom-like presence throughout Rodchenkov’s story, which has so many shocking twists it’s a wonder no Hollywood studio has optioned the rights.
From a violent suicide attempt to after-hours lab room trickery, his experiences reflect the toll that governmental authority can take on those tasked with carrying out its will. It’s here that “Icarus” finally coheres into a truly absorbing piece of filmmaking, using haunting black-and-white drawings to illustrate Rodchenkov’s anecdotes and pausing to show him growing desperate as he grows concerned for his life.
“Icarus” closes by looking ahead to Russia’s continuing role in the world athletic stage, with the next Olympics just four years away and the country set to host the World Cup. Though Rodchenkov emerges as a kind of outlaw hero speaking truth to power, his fate remains uncertain, and the movie concludes with the unsettling implication that nothing can stop a country intent on sustaining its lies.
“Icarus” premiered in U.S. Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.