George Orwell, and in particular, his novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is a recurrent motif in Bryan Fogel’s fascinating documentary Icarus. The film opens with a quote from Orwell: “During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” Regarding the massive doping scandal which swept the Rio Olympics, telling the truth does become a revolutionary event – exposing the Orwellian system behind Russia’s state-sponsored doping program, full of lies, cover-ups and doublethink.
Director Bryan Fogel, an amateur cyclist and former admirer of Lance Armstrong decides to take on the Haute Route – one of the most prestigious and most difficult amateur cycling races in the world. He finishes the race in an impressive position but the next year he hopes to cheat his way into doing better – using a five-month doping program developed by the director of Russia’s drug testing laboratory, Grigory Rodchenkov. Why one of the highest officials in anti-doping would help Fogel cheat the Haute Route is puzzling to him. These questions are soon answered though, and like last year’s Weiner, the film starts off simple before stumbling upon something much bigger. This, of course, is the Russian doping scandal – and Grigory Rodchenkov is right at the centre of it. After forging a tentative friendship from their Haute Route experiment, Fogel is worried about Rodchenkov’s safety, fearing arrest or even death. This isn’t that crazy to imagine – as through Skype calls we can hear Rodchenkov’s wife warn that “they’re watching us.” Orwellian indeed.
The following events unfold at a lightning pace, jumping from Olympic Games and scandals, all to uncover a doping conspiracy that dates back as far as the 1980s. Having access to Rodchenkov – the mastermind behind the entire operation – means we are there for every step of the way and it’s incredibly captivating to watch. One scene especially in which Rodchenkov answers Fogel’s questions with absolutely no reservations is subtly remarkable. There is no doubt that Russia is involved in doping, but witnessing a key player openly admit to it is astonishing.
Fogel weaves a sympathetic narrative of Rodchenkov with symbolic power. A fan of Ninteen Eighty-Four, he talks about how he applies the novel to his everyday life – a startling notion for any normal person. A mantra he has taken to heart is “IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH”, one of the slogans of the novel’s fictional government. This is certainly applicable to Russia who vehemently deny that they have repeatedly cheated the Olympics, even when there are thousands of documents proving otherwise. As for Rodchenkov, Fogel paints a devastating picture of the man as someone who simply loved sport and science, who then became brainwashed into blindly believing in the system that betrayed the very things he loved the most. With the help of Fogel’s confident direction, we can’t help but feel sympathetic towards the man. What started as a simple experiment becomes an intensely gripping and detailed look at one of the biggest scandals in sport history, and the man behind it who fell under Putin’s spell.