The particular glory of documentary films is in the ways their stories feel beyond the control of the documentarians themselves. Great documentary filmmakers are adept at capturing unruly reality and shepherding it into a collection of actual moments that communicate something true. The truth is elusive. It is something beyond mere facts – facts can be used to obscure the truth. The truth transcends individual circumstance. It bridges institutions, countries, and cultures. The truth is the greater power that lesser, petty powers struggle against.
Bryan Fogel, a filmmaker and cyclist, set off after a truth about the prevalence of doping in the upper echelons of the sport of cycling. He turned himself into a test subject—he took illicit substances and worked with a professional to learn how to dodge the drug tests—in order to expose the corruption that he suspected was at the heart of his sport. He thought he was onto a particular problem, but the truth took him on a ride he never anticipated—including an invitation to the 2018 Academy Awards.
The anti-doping professional Fogel was working with turned out to be the eventual truth-teller at the center of the Russian Olympic athlete doping scandal – Grigory Rodchenkov. Rodchenkov ran Russia’s national anti-doping laboratory, a laboratory tasked with keeping performance enhancing substances out of sports. But the lab was in league with the very people it was created to police. The lab really existed to cover up the fact that most Russian athletes were taking performance enhancing drugs as part of a state-sponsored program. Fogel was looking to document a small truth that everyone knows about doping in cycling; he found himself near the center of a vast truth about the ways the institutions that organize (and profit from) international sport conspire to allow doping to continue unabated.
The 2018 Academy Award® winner for Best Documentary Feature, Icarus is a propulsive documentary. Fogel and his crew hasten to keep up with the developing story, and we are pulled along with them. Fogel begins with himself at the center of the story, but as the story develops, he wisely steps aside and lets the focus shift to Rodchenkov. Rodchenkov is quite the character, and Icarus deftly reveals his backstory and why he’s particularly placed and inclined to whistle-blow on the whole Russian conspiracy, all the while making the intricacies of the conspiracy itself intelligible. Corruption thrives on obfuscation. Icarus untangles the lies and finds both a sympathetic hero and a nefarious antagonist at the heart of it all without oversimplifying either the man or the machinations in which he is trapped.
It’s a harrowing thing to reveal the truth. Revelation is confrontation. It forces us to reckon both with the actual nature of things in the world and with our own natures. Would we rather have the myth of un-enhanced athletic competition, or do we dare accept the fact that much of what we’ve seen on the world stage, much of what we believe about what human bodies are capable of, is augmented? Do we care? Certainly, we don’t want another nation to dominate athletic competitions, but would we feel the same if the revelations were about our nation? And what of the truth-tellers, like Rodchenkov, who attempt to make us aware of what’s happening? Will we stand by them? The truth is beyond our control. It imposes upon us. It demands a response.