Bryan Fogel is an L.A.-based writer and amateur competitive bicyclist, co-author of a play about Jewish dating that enjoyed a long off-Broadway run and, quite possibly, the world’s luckiest first-time documentary filmmaker.
That latter distinction is one of the attractions of Fogel’s “Icarus,” a happy-accident documentary that began as a lark and turned into a sometimes stunning look at Fogel’s friendship with the man who oversaw — then blew the whistle on — Russia’s far-reaching sports doping program.
“Icarus,” streaming on Netflix beginning Friday and playing in a limited theatrical engagement, probably wouldn’t have seen the light of day had it not been for a chance introduction.
A few years ago, Fogel found himself fascinated by the story of cyclist Lance Armstrong, who, after denying years of doping rumors, was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles in 2012. As Fogel tells it, Armstrong passed some 500 drug tests. Things went south only after former teammate Floyd Landis blew the whistle on him.
This led Fogel to wonder if he too could cheat, evade detection and, in his case, join the amateur cycling elite and that could be a movie — Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me” with daily injections of drug cocktails replacing the sacramental Big Macs.
Fogel needed expert help to pass urine tests at the cycling races, and through connections he found Grigory Rodchenkov, then head of the Anti-Doping Center in Moscow.
Rodchenkov is straight out of central casting — a chatty, oddly charming, gifted scoundrel who agrees to help Fogel.
Their pact delivers far more than the fledgling documentarian ever imagined — during the course of filming, Fogel discovers that Rodchenkov masterminded a state-sanctioned doping program that helped Russian athletes earn 13 gold medals at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.
In the months since “Icarus” premiered at Sundance, Fogel has reworked the film, cutting much of the footage that focused on his self-administered doping program in order to introduce Rodchenkov, the movie’s main attraction, sooner.
The pivot from gonzo mischief to global thriller, however, remains bumpy, and much of the early material — Fogel repeatedly injecting himself with drugs, lots of footage of dogs — feels indulgent. But the unwieldiness is part and parcel of the movie’s ragged appeal. None of this was by design. We see Fogel as surprised as anybody when he, along with the rest of the world, learns what Rodchenkov did in Sochi.
We never understand why Rodchenkov initially agreed to help Fogel. (Given his background, maybe exercising good judgment isn’t one of his strong suits.) But as investigators close in on him, Rodchenkov’s motivation is crystal-clear — self-preservation. Once he resigns from the Moscow lab and Fogel helps him flee to the the States, damning evidence in hand, “Icarus” shifts into high gear.
Rodchenkov’s tale of how Russian doping specialists and intelligence agents switched tainted urine samples with clean urine made headlines last year. But even if you’re familiar with the facts, “Icarus” casts the depth of deception with an immediacy that’s often astounding, with Russian President Vladimir Putin playing a central role. (After the Sochi games, Putin awarded Rodchenkov the prestigious Order of Friendship.)
Putin claims that Russia never had a doping program. Rodchenkov offers evidence to the contrary. (More than 100 Russian athletes ended up being banned from the 2016 Summer Olympics.) The film doesn’t shy from drawing parallels between Putin’s denials about doping and the current controversy over Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, though Fogel is a little scattershot in the manner he presents the facts.
His main point remains inarguable: You can’t take anything Putin says at face value.
Of course, almost everyone knows that.
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; also on Netflix