Director Bryan Fogel fuses the so-called personal documentary with the template of an international thriller in Icarus, a routinely assembled mélange of provocative material consistently undone by its maker’s perplexing need to foist himself into the center of every conversation. Split into incompatible halves, the film initially chronicles Fogel, a U.S. cyclist, as he decides to take performance-enhancing drugs to improve his likelihood of winning the upcoming Haute Route cycling race in Switzerland. But first he needs to find a physician versed in evading drug detection. That eventually puts him in contact with Grigory Rodchenkov, a Russian doctor whose expertise not only helps Fogel’s doping remain undetected, but also offers him an insider’s view of the Russian doping scandal that unfolded between 2011 and 2015.
Although Rodchenkov gradually emerges as the doc’s figure of foremost significance, Fogel neglects to reformulate his original conception of a film focused on his own exploits to account for Rodchenkov’s central role in the doping scandal. Instead of homing in on Rodchenkov and the corrupt mindset he reveals via video chats, Fogel makes the curious choice of padding the film with irrelevant bits of business and asides. The amount of extraneous material in the film’s first third is especially glaring, and hits a low point when a friend who Vogel video-chats with can’t find his computer charger and spends a few moments, off-camera, searching for it.
Once it’s made clear that Rodchenkov holds secrets to the ins and outs of an illegal urine ring that’s allegedly overseen at the top by Vladimir Putin, Icarus feels weighed down by Fogel’s constant on-screen presence; he isn’t relevant to the overall narrative until the final third, when his testimony becomes integral to the case against the Russian higher-ups. The film’s underlying conception contains more than a whiff of bad faith given Fogel’s attempt to ape the filmmaker-as-lab-rat model of documentary established by Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me. While Spurlock at least stiches together a unique and playful history of food consumption through collage-like montages, Fogel displays no ability to process the escalating scandal at Icarus’s center and edit his material to account for the fact that truth can be stranger than stunt filmmaking. The result is a strangely bifurcated film, almost stream-of-consciousness-like in how a bid at 15 minutes of fame turned into the incidental uncovering of a potentially global conspiracy.
Fogel streamlines large clusters of data into montages of news clips, headlines, and chats between himself and Rodchenkov so that the film’s progression of events has a rigidly chronological structure, but it’s to an informational rather than immersive effect. While the exposition is helpful in contextualizing the implications of a widespread doping scandal, which includes doctors being killed, an elaborate urine transportation system, and anonymous witnesses claiming that Putin will kill them if they speak out, there’s rarely a sequence of filmmaking in Icarus’s back half that deviates from a montage model, with a score indiscriminately overlaying the unfurling of yet more events and video conversations between Fogel and Rodchenkov.
Icarus contributes to a growing list of feature documentaries tailored to stoke the flames of our punishing political news cycle; in this case, the Putin angle consistently wedges its way into the film with seemingly random footage of the Russian president walking with colleagues or shooting some mean side-eye. While ample and convincing evidence piles up to suggest Putin’s complicity in the larger scandal, the film thrives not on parsing the details of illegal doping for their greater significance, but on inserting specious claims from commentators about just how far back and high up the conspiracy goes. Icarus, finally, provides a heavy-handed and unfocused take on a topic necessitating a filmmaker not compelled by cheap thrills.