Give Putin this: The man knows how to deny his government's elaborate, outrageous conspiracies violating international laws and norms. To this day, despite the 37 medals that have been stripped from his nation's Olympians, Putin insists that Russia never engaged in a long-running campaign of doping its athletes and then faking samples for the drug tests administered by the World Anti-Doping Agency. While they won't quite admit the truth of any element of this well-documented scandal, Putin and his subordinates have sometimes placed blame for it all on one man, Grigory Rodchenkov, the scientist who for years served as the director of Moscow's (official) Anti-Doping Center – and also as the director, off the books, of a program whose mission was precisely the opposite of what is suggested in that institution's name. We could call it the Anti-Anti-Doping Center, complete with a little hole in the wall of the testing rooms through which stored, drug-free urine was slipped to fake the samples of athletes pumped full of PEDs (Performance Enhancing Drugs).
That's all in the public record, thanks to Rodchenkov's disclosures to the New York Times and later testimony in court. But never has the story been told with the urgency of Bryan Fogel's new doc Icarus, a real-life absurdist thriller that, in its electric coverage of one Russian scandal, can't help but illuminate another ongoing one.
The story opens with director Fogel, a competitive amateur cyclist, shaken after the revelations that Lance Armstrong had managed to dope and long avoid detection. Fogel concocts the kind of elaborate scheme that crowd-pleasing docs get built on: He'd prove that the system in place to test athletes was "bullshit" by doping himself up with the help of a scientist in the field – and then beating the tests administered to participants in France's Haute Route race. His search for a scientist who will assist leads him to the cheerily corrupt Rodchenkov, a buoyant, gifted fellow who proves eager to spill on camera the ins and outs of his Moscow lab's WADA-beating trickery. For forty minutes or so, the film charts their work pulling off this stunt/investigation, a hearty rapport developing between the American muckraker and the muck king of Russian sports. Rodchenkov is proud of his work, almost giddy to be able to dish about the process of freezing and storing Fogel's urine. It's telling and often hilarious that, in these early scenes, Rodchenkov is so brazen about his wrongdoing – so amused and so proud. In this way Icarus lends credence to the theory that the bumbling crew who enticed Donald Trump Jr. with compromising material about Hillary Clinton might truly have been acting on the Kremlin's behalf – Putin's associates don't sweat appearances.
Long before Fogel's project really pays off, news breaks internationally about Moscow's state-sponsored doping. Fearing for his life, Rodchenkov flees Russia with the help of his new friend, Fogel. In its second half, as Fogel interviews Rodchenkov about all that the man knows – yes, orders to fix the Sochi Olympics came directly from Putin – Icarus becomes something like an amateur Citizenfour. Fogel, maybe in over his head, works to get the story and to ensure his subject's safety and reputation. The Russians, of course, endeavor to discredit Rodchenkov, but their lies – practically "Fake news!" – are shredded not just by the facts reported by WADA but also by the footage that Fogel, that prankster, collected back when this was all still a lark.