Icarus, a new documentary on Netflix about Russian doping scandals, tells a story of Olympic cheating so widespread and comprehensive that its progenitor explained how it came to be by invoking George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Filmmaker Bryan Fogel set out to explore how doping affects amateur cycling and ended up sheltering the runaway mastermind of Russia's state-run doping apparatus. Grigory Rodchenkov was both the primary operator of Russia’s clandestine system and also the leaker who gave the New York Times and a grand jury all the dirty details about the effort. Icarus shows how Rodchenkov ran Russia's "anti-doping" program as the perfect scam to beat every test the International Olympic Committee (IOC) could throw at him—but then fled Russia when it all started to collapse.
Icarus capitalizes on the fact that most of its viewers have primarily experienced the Olympics through a screen. The sight of victorious athletes on the medal stand carries associations of competition and fair play that the film inverts, as it does with much of the Olympics' imagery. Seen in a documentary about many recent champions cheating, the ceremonies, chiseled athletes, and spiffy uniforms have the opposite resonance compared to the initial television broadcast. This familiarity of the Olympic viewing experience gives Icarus a quality that written accounts of Russia’s sundry misdeeds can’t quite replicate.
As Icarus begins to focus on Russian athletes, we learn that the corruption goes all the way up to President Vladimir Putin. As it turns out, the feckless IOC is something of an ideal adversary for the KGB agent-turned-strongman. It was no match for Rodchenkov's chemistry and the FSB's muscle—certainly not on the Russians' home turf at the Sochi Olympic Games in 2014—and there’s a grim satisfaction in seeing how Russia orchestrated its record medal haul by seizing incriminating urine samples from the Olympic lab. It’s also an impressive bit of filmmaking, combining Rodchenkov’s testimony, footage from the games, and digital models of the buildings.
Given the size and scale of these events, one wonders why we spend the first third of the film on Fogel's ill-fated attempt at a cycling documentary. He was interested in performance-enhancing drugs and took them under guidance from Rodchenkov; watching him Skype with Rodchenkov and inject steroids into his buttocks is unlikely to strike viewers as a reason to keep watching. However, Fogel takes his time—at 2 hours and 4 minutes, Icarus runs 40 minutes longer than my documentary of reference, This Is Spinal Tap—to develop what he calls his "bromance" with Rodchenkov.
This helps viewers see Rodchenkov as Fogel sees him: a goofy, clever scientist caught up in intrigue controlled by men not at all like him. Rodchenkov saw himself as a character out of Nineteen Eighty-Four, a book he read illegally in the Soviet Union. He had to practice doublethink to maintain falsehoods for the sake of the regime—and his own safety. Holding onto faith through the practice of doublethink is intellectual but also emotional: Putin rescued him from prison to return to his craft and, in Rodchenkov's words, redeemed him.
The film also explores how doublethink can infect politics anywhere. This becomes painfully clear when Rodchenkov is shown pondering the consequences of denying reality just before viewers see IOC president Thomas Bach announce a slap on the wrist for Russia.
Some viewers may be reluctant to ascribe heroic motives to Rodchenkov's turn as a witness against the Kremlin. But regimes like Putin’s Russia invest a great deal of energy into controlling not only those who live within them but what information escapes into the rest of the world. Rodchenkov got out, and, by sharing what he knows, has taken the first steps toward redeeming himself.