REVIEW: Icarus (2017 – Documentary)

Release Poster – Netflix

The following is a short review of Icarus – A Netflix Documentary

I enjoy watching the Tour de France. In fact, if you go back and search for the Tour on this site, then I’m pretty sure you’ll find an article or two. I watch the Tour every year, thus I am awfully familiar with doping allegations and sinners like Lance Armstrong. Naturally, this documentary intrigued me, but I didn’t think it would be as captivating as it, ultimately, is.

Netflix’s Icarus is an extremely entertaining documentary from filmmaker Bryan Fogel about testing the limits of drug-testing in the toughest amateur cycling race in the world, Haute Route. Fogel finished fourteenth without doping, and he wants to see how well he’ll do on drugs, and if he can beat the drug-testing. Because, as he puts it, if he can do it, then all professionals can too.

In that sense, it is almost like Morgan Spurlock’s Oscar-nominated documentary Super Size Me. We see Fogel with doping advisers who provide him with the drugs and give him detailed guides about how to take it to the best effect. But, at some point in the documentary, the Super Size Me of doping turns into a very different kind of documentary, something more akin to Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour.

Expectations are proven wrong, villains become protagonists, and unlikely villains show up and turn out to be masterminds behind a state-sponsored doping program that Russia will do everything to keep secret. What is just a fascinating doping documentary, essentially, becomes an intense nail-biting thriller as a doping doctor becomes an Edward Snowden-like character seemingly out of nowhere.

It is not without faults, though. Although the final hour is thrilling, the film’s introduction, or rather the part of the documentary focused on Bryan Fogel’s own attempts at cheating, is not nearly as interesting as the rest of the documentary. But I do understand why one would want to keep a somewhat lengthy introduction in a documentary that makes such a dramatic shift.

Grigory Rodchenkov, the subject of the documentary once the shift in focus has happened, is an intriguing individual with a backstory that seems too fantastical to not be told. He is a really eccentric character and far more colorful, so to speak, than Edward Snowden. He constantly quotes George Orwell’s 1984, which the film does not let you forget. It is an everpresent inspiration. The documentary opens with an Orwell quote, and, in the latter half of the film, it is also structured around the three stages of reintegration.

Netflix’s Icarus is a terrific example of how colorful characters and a sudden turn of events can significantly alter the documentary. It goes without saying that Icarus is a must-watch documentary for people interested in athletics and sports, but Icarus is so much more than that.

8.5 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex

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