Thursday, 21 May 2020

Movie review: Icarus, dir Bryan Fogel (2017)

This film about doping in sport won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2018, so it comes well recommended and can appeal to a wide range of people. There’s not an awful lot of chatter about the movie on Twitter, though I did find this from a person named Lee (with no indication on his profile as to where he lives):

The story starts when Fogel asks an American doping expert to help him improve his performance in advance of a gruelling bicycle road race. Fogel has had one go at the Haute Route – he doesn’t say which one, using the name of a series of races to stand in for one of them – and came 14th in the raking at the end of it. Now, he wants to improve his ranking at another Haute Route. In the event the Californian decides not to help Fogel achieve his goal, instead referring him to someone known to him by the name of Grigory Rodchenkov, who works at a lab in Moscow that provides testing services for athletes.

Rodchenkov starts to give Fogel advice on how to dope – which includes injecting substances into his thigh and buttocks – and Fogel gets advice, at this stage in the process, from a clinic in the US. But since, in order to compete, you must prove you are clean, he is taking urine samples, under Rodchenkov’s tutelage, and freezing them. The question then arises: where to get them tested? This is where things start to spiral out of control. What happens next will open up a pandora’s box and unleash forces that Fogel could never have imagined might have an interest in his bike race, or in his life.

To strengthen the points the movie wants to make about corruption, Fogel puts Rodchenkov on camera reading extracts from George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen eighty-four’ (1949). Rodchenkov’s history of depression and his bookishness compound the mystery embodied in the narrative. Some aspects of the drama have a veil drawn over them but even if the story seems incredible it is a compelling watch.

The film’s soundtrack is really interesting, adding impact at carefully chosen points. The editing is crisp and efficient, but it’s a bit hard to read subtitles as well as on-screen labels – the name straps used to identify a person being interviewed in front of the camera – so you need to pay close attention. Parts of the film are in foreign languages as media reports are used from time to time, and they originated in a number of different countries. There are also parts that are spoken in Russian by people close to the story, for example those who appear on Skype.

Stories continue to emerge in the public sphere that touch on the same points as are dealt with here. For many, sport must no longer be worth the time needed to watch.

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