2017, Movies

Icarus (2017, Bryan Fogel)

This is a maddening, over-stylized, over-thought, over-long documentary about a story that I paid basically zero attention to at the time, but which deserves a great feature-length documentary. This Oscar-winning documentary is not that film.


This is Fogel’s second film. Honestly, I was willing to bet it was among his first few given how clunky it is. Though I have basically zero respect for Oscar voters as a bloc, it’s still hard to understand how they thought this movie was the best documentary of the year. I presume there was, um, a little bit of anti-Russia sentiment behind the vote. But that’s just a wild guess…

So, this is really two movies: it starts out of the story of a rathe silly stunt to show how Performance Enhancing Drugs affect competition in cycling and it quickly turns into something very, very different. But how it gets there is problematic, not to mention pompous and tedious. There is a great story here but this is not told well. It’s told like it was made by someone who isn’t very good at making movies.

I have two huge problems with the film, one of which was totally avoidable and one of which probably wasn’t.

The biggest problem is the pretense of this film: it is called Icarus but there is much more in the way of “This is an important film!” going on here. (And no mention of the myth, as far as I can remember.) There is an ongoing comparison to 1984 which makes very little sense. It might make some sense to our Russian scientist, but it makes no sense once he is outside of Russia. WADA believes him. How is this anything like 1984??? I’d say they didn’t read the novel but there is text on the screen. (You know how I hate text on the screen.)

There is also an attempt to rope in the individual decisions of major American athletes who have been caught doping with Russia’s conspiracy to dope. These things are not morally equivalent! But only that, I’m not sure how relevant Marian Jones’ drug use is relevant to Russia’s conspiracy. (Poor Marian Jones.) This film is too long. He could have chosen to focus on the story, rather than on “PED in sport” and he would have had a leaner, better film.

The other major nitpick I have is how unbelievably director-focused this film is. This is a personal nitpick of mine – I am not watching your film for you, I am watching it because, presumably, topic interests me – but I think, more often than not, when the director gets in front of the camera, the film will be less successful.

Now, Fogel had to be in this film because otherwise he cannot explain how he got involved in this story. But he could have taken more of a backseat. It reminds me of Citizenfour – Poitras is in the movie but she takes a back seat and she certainly isn’t the star. Fogel is the star of this move, even though it is ostensibly about the Russian doping conspiracy. That’s a problem for me and it should be a problem for anyone who wants to see a film about this moment in Olympic history.

Oh, a third problem is the ridiculous soundtrack. I forgot until this moment how over the top it is.

But, even with my massive problems with the film, I still found part of it really, really compelling. And I would say it takes a massive left turn – which I’m sorry to say I’ve spoiled at least a little – which is the kind of thing you want from documentaries about publicity stunts. I’ve been hemming and hawing about whether to give it a 5/10 or a 6/10 and I’ve decided on the former. I don’t think it was well made, I think the parts about the Russian conspiracy are worth watching, but the rest of the film is a real slog.


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