Icarus review: This Netflix documentary is one of the most politically relevant watches of this year

Mihir Fadnavis

Aug,14 2017 12:28 29 IST

4/5

Mystery is the integral element of a memorable thriller and what point it is injected in the narrative is key to making a lasting impact on a viewer. Bryan Fogel, the director of Icarus knows precisely how to build up something ominous and select the appropriate moment to suddenly flip the switch, causing your jaw to drop.

To some it may seem strange that components like mystery and narrative are being talked about for a documentary, but that is precisely what this film is like – a tense thriller rather than a docu shot with handy cams. The execution makes Icarus one of the best and most socio-politically relevant films of the year.

Before the execution comes the content – and Icarus has some stuff that will blow you away.

The poster of Icarus.

The film starts off as a reiteration of Alex Gibney’s docu on Lance Armstrong and his fall from grace. With quick montages we’re introduced to the beleaguered athlete’s confession to doping and cheating, an action that led to his world record seven Tour De France titles being stripped away and doping athletes becoming an international talking point.

Fogel then puts himself in the spotlight – he turns out to be an accomplished cyclist himself, with an interest in competing in the world’s most difficult cycling races. Incensed by the doping scandal and convinced that there’s more than what’s been reported, and with a determination to uncover more secrets, he begins to perform an experiment. He covertly collaborates with the head of an international dope check sports committee to inject himself with performance enhancing drugs in order to win a race and showcase how dope checks in international sporting events could be deceived.


While that proceeds to become a fascinating story thread in itself, Fogel comes across a Russian scientist named Grigory Rodchenkov and stumbles upon a shady, jaw dropping global conspiracy.

Fogel uses Rodchenkov as a Chekov’s gun, cleverly placing him in the background in the beginning of the film to make him seem like an innocuous comedic relief. But the more we learn about the man and his presence in the international Olympic arena the more shocking things become. The film uses George Orwell’s 1984 as a narrative device – the stages of information, learning, acceptance and consequence used as chapters in slowly peeling away the layers of the mystery. It’s quite a powerful storytelling technique, further bringing Orwell’s work as a mainstream talking point in these politically infected times.


It seems every good new film about a real life scandal has the specter of Vladimir Putin looming alongside it. Russia has entrenched itself as the centerpiece of every major postmodern scandal, no doubt to gain attention because Putin has so famously said that the nation had become increasingly irrelevant in global politics. We’re very much in the midst of an information war, and films like this one will go on to be remembered as milestones, depending on the effect of the information they carry on its viewers.

The scary bit is how Indians watching this film will be able to relate to what Putin is doing in Russia, using every marketing tool possible to increase poll ratings and win the next election.

Those with a cursory knowledge of the meaning behind Icarus’ title could probably guess the hidden story beneath the story you think the film chronicles. It’s also interesting to mull over whether the film carries merit because of the issue it scales, or it was sheer dumb luck for Fogel to chance upon something more than he expected. In any case, with production quality as classy as this, the line between fictional motion picture filmmaking and documentary work is now further eroded.

Icarus is available to stream on Netflix India.