Thursday, January 26, 2017

Sundance ’17: Icarus

Unlike most subjects of documentaries premiering at Sundance this year, Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov was not available for post-screening Q&A’s. That is because he is in Witness Protection. Dr. Rodchenkov and the Federal government believed he was targeted by the Putin regime for assassination, perhaps much like several of his colleagues who suddenly died under mysterious circumstances. Before he went underground, Dr. Rodchenkov told his story to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and filmmaker Bryan Fogel. As a result, Fogel radically reshaped his proposed doping documentary into the riveting expose, Icarus, which screens during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

As a high-performing amateur cyclist, Fogel originally conceived the film as a guerilla chronicle of his undercover attempt to conduct his own doping regimen in the mode of Lance Armstrong. He was referred to Dr. Rodchenkov, because the director of the Russian Anti-Doping Center was considered sufficiently maverick to serve as Fogel’s advisor. As Fogel and Rodchenkov develop trust and rapport, rumors start to swirl regarding the legitimacy of Russia’s record medal haul at the Sochi games. Soon, Dr. Rodchenkov is directly implicated in those allegations. At that point, the doctor levels with Fogel: he oversaw a systemic doping campaign across all sports on the direct orders of Putin’s trusted deputies. He now fears for his own life.

In the scenes that follow, Icarus becomes the film CitizenFour was hyped to be, but can’t hold a candle to. After assisting Dr. Rodchenkov’s escape to America, Fogel engineers the release of his story to the press and WADA. Dr. Rodchenkov packed light, but he wisely brought along hard drives and cell phones loaded with proof.

Icarus is shocking in many ways, starting with how poorly Dr. Rodchenkov’s story was reported in the West. We mostly just accepted news of the Russian doping scandal as par for the course, following in the alleged tradition of the old school Communist Olympic training machines. However, the “smoking gun” conclusiveness of Dr. Rodchenkov’s evidence is stunning. Yet, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) chose to ignore it, presumably out of deference to Putin’s vodka and caviar. Aside from Putin and his FSB enforcers, the biggest villain in Icarus is undoubtedly Thomas Bach, the cravenly hypocritical IOC president.

Unlike Snowden (with whom Dr. Rodchenkov is directly compared with), viewers can feel the Russian whistleblower’s life is constantly in palpable danger during the doc’s second and third acts. Yet, there are even graver stakes involved. Fogel trenchantly points out Putin invaded Ukraine while riding a wave a nationalist popularity largely based on Russia’s Sochi triumphs.

Granted, there is a little too much of Fogel doing prep work for his original conception of the documentary, with him in the center. However, once the focus shifts to Dr. Rodchenkov, the film becomes taut, tense, suspenseful, and downright revelatory. This is truly gutsy documentary filmmaking. Icarus could very well be the motivation for the hacking of this year’s Sundance, if it was not the Chinese Communist Party in retribution for the screenings of the outstanding Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower. (Such scenarios might sound petty, but that is how dictatorships roll.) Very highly recommended, Icarus screens today (1/26) at the Sundance Mountain Resort and this Saturday (1/28) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance.

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