Jaw-Dropping Netflix Sports Film Wins Oscar For Best Documentary
Last night, Bryan Fogel received the ultimate prize for his Netflix documentary, Icarus, when it won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature Film. We wrote this review at the time of its release.
In the traditional motion picture story, the villains are usually defeated, the ending is a happy one. I can make no such promise for the picture you're about to watch. The story isn't over. You and the audience are part of the conflict. What has happened so far, what is happening now is far from encouraging. How we meet the Communist challenge depends on you. And it is sheer folly for us not to make every conceivable preparation to win.
Addressing the American public, Red Army (2014) begins with a demonstration of President Reagan's insistence upon the Soviet threat to the American way of life. In what amounts to a wonderful documentary charting the emergence, dominance and dissolution of the Soviet Union's National Ice Hockey team, the 'Red scare' is ultimately seen to be divided between the system propagating communism and the individuals therein. Icarus, a new Netflix documentary charting the apparent collapse of Russia's highly sophisticated state-sponsored doping program from within, treads a similar line.
The separation between the impetus for this documentary and the story that would ultimately develop is astounding. Bryan Fogel, a keen amateur cyclist, relatively successful playwright and the filmmaker behind Icarus, initially sought to undertake a controlled performance enhancing drugs program with the intention of riding in the Haute Route; the World's most grueling amateur cycling race. Perturbed by the manner in which Lance Armstrong had defied anti-doping regulations for such an extended period of time, Fogel sought to demonstrate the continued fallibility of WADA - the World Anti-Doping Agency - despite Armstrong's eventual capitulation.
Having initially contacted Don Catlin, a leading American anti-doping scientist, with the intention of acquiring his services for this pursuit, Fogel was subsequently directed toward Grigory Rodchenkov. While Catlin feared that any involvement on his part may be damaging to his reputation, Rodchenkov, Catlin's Russian equivalent, may be less scrupulous. He wasn't mistaken.
Over a series of Skype phone calls between Fogel and the Moscow-based Rodchenkov, the simplicity of what was required to execute such a plan was telling; it required very little outside assistance for a start. With Rodchenkov's guidance and involvement, Fogel would not be caught.
Up to this point in Icarus, the prospect of doping resonates with the crux of Paul Kimmage's argument regarding this affliction in sport. Kimmage maintains that Rough Ride, his first direct attack on doping in cycling, did not seek to demonise individuals because,
it is not individuals who matter - what X or Y may have done - but the sport as a whole and the dangers it faces.
True enough, when we witness Fogel carrying out his daily series of injections at his kitchen table, one is struck by the level of humanity on show. Yes, Fogel is not a professional athlete. However, upon following Rodchenkov's advice and inserting these needles straight into his arse instead of his now heavily bruised thigh, Fogel's discomfort at the resulting sight of his bleeding rear-end demonstrates something of what even elite dopers must necessarily go through with. Scarcely cause for absolution, Icarus nonetheless captures this human element masterfully.
To Rodchenkov's misfortune however - if not the documentary that would eventually emerge - this initial project would quickly fall to the wayside. Although the pair had met in LA to arrange the transfer of Fogel's urine samples back to Rodchenkov's laboratory in Moscow (all part and parcel of the anti-doping deception), an increasingly aggressive investigation by WADA into suspected Russian doping programs had serious ramifications for Rodchenkov and his role as Director of the laboratory under suspicion. Under the impression that Russian state authorities would seek to prematurely silence any loose lips on the matter, Rodchenkov, for all intents and purposes, defects to America and into Fogel's care.
The eventual WADA recommendation that all Russian athletes be banned from competing in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games came largely as a result of Rodchenkov's subsequent revelations. An increasingly paranoid, fearful figure as these events develop, Rodchenkov's fate becomes eerily reminiscent of what we may expect of a Cold War spy-thriller. The impact of his eventual testimony is mind-blowing however. When Nikita Kamaev (52), the head of RUSADA (Russia's anti-doping agency) and a cohort of Rodchenkov's in this deception, is found dead shortly after Rodchenkov's defection, the reported cause of heart-attack does little to assuage the concerns of the man on the run.
In what amounts to a fascinating insight of the practicalities necessary in establishing and running a sophisticated doping program, Rodchenkov's involvement is vital. What price he may pay for the eventual rumbling of this particular system is unclear. However, in one particular scene where an increasingly involved Fogel must speak to WADA's leading scientists in lieu of the safe-housed Rodchenkov, he makes its blatantly clear that,
There never was anti-doping in Russia, ever!
The high-point of Rodchenkov's work in the Moscow laboratory would become apparent at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Russia would claim an unprecedented 13 gold medals among a haul of 33 in total - seven medals ahead of the second-placed Norwegians. Yet, the implication that this was but one triumph in a series of grand deceptions is blatantly clear. How far beyond the Russian borders such behaviour may be similarly occurring is left unsaid, but we are forced to ask the question all the same.