With more foreign intrigue than a spy movie, Bryan Fogel's documentary "Icarus" is a powerful look at doping by world-class athletes and a conspiracy that is breathtaking in its size and scope.
Fogel starts out trying to do for performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) what Morgan Spurlock did for McDonald's in "Super Size Me." After placing a respectable 14th in the Haute Route, a grueling amateurs-only bicycle race in Switzerland, Fogel decides to try to crack the top 10 the next year by taking PEDs, employing a regimen similar to what Lance Armstrong used to win the Tour de France seven times.
And, like Armstrong did, Fogel aims to beat the tests set forward by the World Anti-Doping Agency, or WADA to show how scandalously easy it is to do. He first consults with Don Catlin, founder of the WADA-sanctioned testing lab at UCLA. Then Catlin gets cold feet, and suggests his counterpart at Russia's WADA lab, Grigory Rodchenkov, help Fogel fool the test. The boisterous Rodchenkov is eager to help, and reveals to Fogel the tricks used to beat the urine tests.
After Fogel's second try at the Haute Route, things take a jarring turn. Rodchenkov and his lab, along with the whole of Russian athletics, are under investigation by WADA, ahead of Russia's hosting of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. At a certain point, Rodchenkov hops on a plane for America with a stash of incriminating documents and hides out, afraid for his life, with Fogel.
Fogel packs a lot of information into a tight package, both in the details of beating a urine sample and the extent of the Russian government's chicanery. Fogel's filmmaking style is brisk and energetic, particularly when the story turns into something from a John Le Carré novel.
The last, and most heartbreaking, surprise in "Icarus" is how Fogel slowly unravels Rodchenkov's motives for becoming a whistleblower and how, in the process, the two men become friends. Such tenderness is the last thing one expects to see in a headline-making exposé, but it helps get to the heart of Rodchenkov's reasons for bringing Putin's house of cards down around him.
– Sean P. Means
"Icarus" screens again at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival at the following times and venues:
• Thursday, Jan. 26, 3 p.m., Sundance Mountain Resort Screening Room
• Saturday, Jan. 28, 2:30 p.m., Prospector Square Theatre, Park City