Documentary Storytelling

I recently watched director Brian Fogel’s “Icarus,” and was amazed by how engrossing this seemingly simple sports documentary was. The investigative spark for this film was found by the director after noting the disparity in results at a top-end amateur cycling race. Suspecting performance enhancing drugs to be at play, Fogel then decides to see for himself how easy it is to beat anti-doping tests. Fogel later befriends the embattled Grigori Rodchenkov, the former-head of Moscow’s World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) laboratory who becomes the focal piece of a worldwide political scandal. 

Elements of Story
Icarus begins with a healthy dose of exposition, first in the form of handheld footage of Fogel at home and later in a montage of family photos. The latter was accompanied by voice-over from the director explaining his personal relationship with the sport of cycling. He also goes into detail about his idolizing, parasocial relationship with Lance Armstrong and his emotional response to the Tour de France champion’s doping scandal. These scenes communicate to the audience why Fogel cares enough about steroid use to attempt a sort of medical white-hat hack into WADA’s testing procedures with himself as the guinea pig. 

This information also serves to inform the audience about the minutia of Fogel as person, due to him being the main protagonist of the film. Fogel also represents less of a traditional hero protagonist and more readily fits the mold of a morally-grey antihero. His objective was to apply social pressure and demand accountability from anti-doping agencies, the result being a net-positive for the sport of cycling. But to do this, Fogel needed to become the same type of cheater that he so desperately wanted to expose. This ethical eclipse is presented in context of Fogel’s disgust with Armstrong when he was stripped of his medals. It is this realpolitick motivation, as well as his dissonance between means and goals that makes Fogel such a compelling character to me.

After the film had ended and I had a moment to digest what I had just seen, I began to think about what the ‘secret ingredient’ in Icarus was. What elevated this documentary above the thousands of other paint-by-numbers competitors available for streaming? I believe this was partially the result of the effective use of suspense. As the audience moves through the narrative, they only know as much as Fogel. A less competent film maker may have instead front-loaded the more exciting revelations and then worked backwards from the conclusions, however I think that this would have undercut the emotional weight of the complications that arise during the plot. Instead, Fogel used a very clear chain of cause and effect to guide the audience through nearly four years of investigative reporting and testing.

The complication with the most emotional weight was the growing threat posed by the Independent Commission’s investigation into Rodchenkov’s role in doping during the 2014 Sochii Winter Olympics. I shared Fogel’s initial suspicions about the steroid-guru. We need not look farther thantheir first Skype call, during which an air of skepticism is audible in Fogel’s response to Rodchenkov’s bold assurances of success. The growth in their relationship comes to center stage on the night before Fogel’s amateur race during a phone call between the two men. Sounding less like co-conspirators and more like father and son, Rodchenkov’s usual confident half-yell has shifted into a near-whisper as he reassures Fogel’s pre-race anxieties. The audience is not told the specifics of the relationship between these two men, they are shown. This is ultimately why the threats posed by Russian Intelligence services to Rodchenkov’s life carry such dramatic weight.

Ultimately, this documentary benefits from the use of elements of story-telling more common in summer, popcorn movies that the sea of indistinguishable and formulaic documentaries that Netflix seems to horde. The result is a refreshing non-fiction movie experience that still has political and social ramifications two years later, as the United States is still grappling with the reality of destabilizing efforts by Russia during the 2016 and 2018 presidential and midterm elections, respectively. If you are looking for a documentary more entertaining than most action movies, then check out Brian Fogel’s Icarus (2017).

The film is still available for streaming on Netflix.

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