They gave the Best Documentary Feature Film Oscar to “Icarus,” a film about trying to beat the laughably busted and beatable doping tests used on athletes.
Cyclist/filmmaker Bryan Fogel set out to find a drug doc, get a drug regimen, master his “protocols” and improve his placement in the grueling Haute Route, a non-Tour de France bicycle race. What he got from that is this long, semi-playful, somewhat creepy how-its-done/what-it-means film about cheating.
Here’s why you might say “Yeah, and?” Super-cyclist Lance Armstrong, Olympian and seven-time Tour de France “winner,” despite scores of non-incriminating doping tests, is history — disgraced. Baseball’s guardians of the Hall of Fame seem to be softening on allowing a generation of frauds named Bonds, McGwire, Sosa and Clemens, who took careers away from clean players, admission into the Hall. Golf doesn’t want to know what Tiger Woods did to give him an unfair edge, the perhaps career-shortening PEDs that drove his drives back when they were head-scratching wonders.
But Fogel wants to know and he makes a good case that we should, too. A good cyclist a few years younger than Lance, he had placed well enough at the Haute that he figured a little bump would put him among the elite, and he’d expose the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), already reeling from what it never seems to discover about cheaters and how they’re cheating, as “BS.”
Maybe. Maybe not.
We hear him talking a veteran of the doping testing community, Don Catlin, into helping him with this “experiment,” and then see Catlin back out. As if there was more disgrace to his “legacy” than never busting Armstrong, always being several steps behind the cheaters.
But a Russian, Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, agrees to give Fogel a hand.
“Why would you watch an event that’s fixed?” says doping investigation chief Richard Pound. As if it hasn’t been fixed for years.
The gregarious, playful Rodchenkov asks Fogel, “Why not?” And “You are victim of your own ideas.” He’s all about blowing the whole thing up.
“You are what you are, I am what I am.”
As Fogel starts his “protocol,” Rodchenkov visits him in Boulder and literally juggles the man’s urine samples as he strategizes
“What IS that?” Fogel asks, laughing.
All these Human Growth Hormone (HGH) shots Fogel is giving himself?
Playful, no-nonsense Grigory blusters, “Better in the ass.”
A German TV documentary, “How Russia Makes its Winners,” blew the lid off the way that the Soviet Union and present-day Russian Federation manufactured the illusion that they were world beaters in athletics. As WADA circles its wagons and appoints some of the inept testers running the show in charge of investigating Russia, “Icarus” changes tones. Yeah, the KGB has been involved — from the start. The entire Russian state was involved. Lives could be endangered.
As the International Olympic Committee finally gets around to watching that German TV doc, finishing its investigation and banning the Russians, the hypocritical Rodchenkov worries about being “purged” and fears for his life. He’s read a lot of George Orwell, whom he quotes at every opportunity.
But Fogel, interviewing Rodchenkov, starts finding out a lot more than he bargained for. The film’s place in the expose of Russian’s vast state propaganda machine is what it is, but others were first out the door with accounts of how Putin parlayed a fixed Socchi Olympics to boost his popularity as a prelude to intervention in Ukraine.
And that cheating is but a preamble to what Putin & Co. were cooking up for the 2016 U.S. election.
Fogel’s film gets at the real stakes here, and paints a portrait of systemic cheating so systemic that letting Russia play with the rest of the world makes as little sense as it ever has.
Which is a problem. It’s been an open secret that they cheat since the ’70s. The Soviet Bloc states have been exposed or come clean on their decades of gaming the games. So the details of how it happens now, how it was managed at the Socchi Winter Olympics is less explosive than intended, less jaw-dropping than the hyper-dramatic underscoring music insists.
The entire film, a most worthwhile enterprise in itself, drags on and becomes more patience-testing than incendiary.
I saw maybe 75 documentaries last year. Was this the best? Hard to say. It’s a seemingly solid piece of (mostly single-source) journalism. And it’s not like the Oscars are notorious for “getting it right,” especially when it comes to documentaries.
MPAA Rating: TV-14 (profanity)
Cast: Bryan Fogel, Zabriskie, Don Catlin, Sebastian Coe, Grigory Rodchenkov
Credits:Directed by Bryan Fogel, script by Jon Bertain, Bryan Fogle, Mark Monroe, Timothy Rode. A Netflix release.
Running time: 2:01