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‘Icarus,’ an exposé of Russian athlete doping, brings Netflix its first feature film Oscar

90th Annual Academy Awards - Press Room
Producer Dan Cogan, left, and director Bryan Fogel, winners of the documentary feature award for “Icarus,” pose in the press room at the 90th Academy Awards.
(Frazer Harrison / Getty Images)

This year’s nominees for documentary feature all had some pretty phenomenal stories behind the scenes along with what went on the screen.

The Oscar went to “Icarus,” a real-life espionage story about Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, a scientist turned whistleblower who helped bring down the immense state-sponsored apparatus in place for the illicit doping of Russian Olympic athletes.

The win marked the first Oscar to go to a feature film from the streaming service Netflix. The company’s contentious relationship with conventional theatrical exhibition has been widely seen as a stumbling block when it comes to recognition from the tradition-based Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

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Backstage after winning the award, director Bryan Fogel celebrated Rodchenkov for his bravery in speaking out.

“It’s not difficult to obtain truthful information when the person that you’re speaking to is telling the truth,” Fogel said. “And what we’ve seen is that all of his evidence that we brought forward has been corroborated [and] forensically proven. So it is irrelevant what Russia would like to say in regards to Dr. Rodchenkov or what Russia would like to say in regards to the truth.

“The truth is the truth is the truth,” he continued. “And then there’s fake news, and then there’s false news, and then there’s the truth. Dr. Rodchenkov told the truth.”

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Though Netflix’s marketing muscle made “Icarus” a film never to be counted out, the win was something of an upset considering the media attention that had been garnered by “Faces Places” and its filmmakers, Agnès Varda and the French artist JR. The film follows the two of them as they travel the French countryside, engaging with strangers and creating large photo murals along the way.

At 89, Varda — with a filmmaking career that stretches back some 60 years — became the oldest Oscar nominee ever. She also became the first female director to be given an honorary Oscar when she received a statue at the Governors Awards in November. Varda and JR had become fixtures of awards season, with their playful dynamic lighting up many events. When Varda could not attend, such as at the academy’s nominees luncheon, JR would carry a life-size cardboard cutout of his diminutive filmmaking partner.

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“Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” marked the first nomination in the documentary category for the veteran filmmaker Steve James. The film tells the story of Abacus Federal Savings of Chinatown, New York, a small family-run financial firm that became the only U.S. bank to face criminal charges after the 2008 financial crisis. The film brought a small, personal perspective to a complicated topic that can often feel overwhelming.

Among James’ previous work are “Hoop Dreams,” “The Interrupters” and “Life Itself,” all celebrated, well-regarded films that for whatever reason never found favor with the academy.

Directed by Feras Fayyad, “Last Men In Aleppo” looks at the Syrian civil war through the lens of the White Helmets, the volunteer civilian organization whose members are at the front lines of the conflict as first responders to military strikes and attacks.

One of the film’s nominated producers, Kareem Abeed, had been denied a visa to travel to the U.S. for the Oscars ceremony. After intervention by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the International Documentary Assn., he was finally issued a visa at the end of February.

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Filmmaker Yance Ford made history on Oscar nominations morning by being the first openly transgender person to be recognized by the academy. His film “Strong Island” tells the story of the murder of his brother William in 1992. The film looks at the personal impact of such an event on a single family as well as the larger structural and institutional issues of race and justice.

Mark.Olsen@latimes.com

Follow on Twitter: @IndieFocus


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