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Icarus, winner of the inaugural Audience Favourite Award at this year’s Sundance London, offers a rare and fascinating perspective on one of the biggest doping scandals in sports history – you just have to sit through about an hour of a seemingly completely unrelated documentary first.
Director Bryan Fogel set out to make a documentary about the ways in which athletes can outsmart doping tests. An amateur athlete himself, Fogel willingly starts doping, both to see the effect it has on his performance and to find out how to trick the system. His project puts him in touch with Grigory Rodchenkov, then director of Moscow’s leading anti-doping laboratory, who has no qualms about helping him.
Rodchenkov ended up being a key player in the investigation surrounding allegations of Russian state-sponsored doping. Fearing for his life, he eventually fled to the USA, where he offered more information about the case. Fogel, a friend of sorts of Rodchenkov at that point, inadvertently finds himself in the middle of what looks to be one of the biggest conspiracies in sports history. Naturally, that takes precedence in the documentary.
The scope of the alleged Russian state-sponsored doping efforts truly is breathtaking and makes for a gripping documentary. It’s unsettling, insidious and well worth following all the way through. Icarus practically has an insider’s perspective on the whole thing, so even if the information itself is familiar to you, there’s still a strong incentive to check this documentary out.
The problem is that most of the first half, which is close to an hour, is devoted to Fogel’s initial documentary idea about one amateur athlete trying to beat the system. It is necessary to start there, since it shows the foundation of Fogel and Rodchenkov’s friendship, but Icarus spends way too much time on it, making the shift to the much larger scandal feel jarring.
The first half might have made for a compelling documentary in its own right, but it simply pales in comparison to what follows after. The Russia scandal is clearly Icarus‘ biggest draw and the part that everyone who’s seen it will be talking about the most afterwards.
If the first hour of Icarus was condensed to about 15-20 minutes of building towards the Russia scandal, it would have been an absolutely brilliant documentary. As it stands, it’s still really good. It has all the necessary ingredients – a unique perspective on a truly sensational and highly relevant topic – but is unnecessarily padded.
Once you get past Icarus’ one hour mark, you’re in for quite a ride.