Monday, July 31, 2017

AFI Docs 2017 - Icarus

The opening night film of AFI Docs 2017 was Icarus. I must say, I was surprised to see them pick a sports film as the opener, but as I learned more about the film, the choice began to make more sense. The film starts out as a sort of Supersize Me on steroids (and I mean literally on steroids). Amateur endurance cyclist Bryan Fogel decides he's going to start doping to show how Lance Armstrong and other athletes have managed to use performance-enhancing drugs undetected, despite a system that tests them frequently to prevent that.

But then Fogel's American specialist decides he doesn't want to risk his reputation by helping Fogel do this and refers him to a Russian specialist, Grigory Rodchenkov, head of the Russian anti-doping lab. The film begins to pivot to be not about Fogel at all.

Rodchenkov is quite the character - he's brilliant, hilarious, a dog-lover, and generally incredibly cheerful. Fogel and Rodchenkov quickly become friends, even visiting each other in their respective countries so that Fogel can give Rodchenkov his pee to create a profile for him that will help Fogel cheat the testing system while doping.

A little ways into their relationship, Rodchenkov casually mentions "have you seen the film about me?" He is referring to a German film that claimed that basically all Russian athletes in the Olympics and other international competitions have been doping for decades and that Rodchenkov is the brains behind the state-sponsored operation.

As those claims get picked up, examined, investigated, etc, the film starts to turn more thriller, and the film becomes a window into the Russian psyche and what they'll do to win - something that has much broader implications for us here in the US right now. Not only that but Rodchenkov begins to suspect his own life may be in danger when Russian officials ask him to resign. Without giving too much away (even though it's real, googleable events), the film from here becomes devoted to keeping Rodchenkov safe and also getting out the truth about the Russian doping situation.

Overall, I enjoyed the film. I will say that I think it's maybe 20 minutes too long, and there were times I was a bored. But Rodchenkov is a wonderful character, and there were also times I was completely riveted. I am not a particularly sports-inclined person, so my personal reaction was essentially "all this just to win some games?" I realize that sports is a multi-billion dollar industry, but that fact itself bothers me when we live in a world where people are starving or dying in conflicts. During the Q&A people kept saying "this is such an important story" and to be perfectly honest, I kept thinking to myself "is it though? There are so many much bigger issues that threaten the lives of millions in this world." To me the only way it's important is as a lens into the lengths Russia will go to achieve their goals. If they'd go this far and game a very detailed system to win some medals, what lengths do you think they've gone to in order to influence America's election? That said, not every documentary has to be really important. Sometimes a film is worth watching because it's an enjoyable story and I would recommend this film for that purpose. I am hoping that they continue to fine tune it before it's released on Netflix though - apparently it's changed a great deal between Sundance and AFI Docs, and I think it could still use some tightening up. But even if not, it's definitely worth watching.

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