YOU WILL REMEMBER that in the mythology of Ancient Greece, Icarus was the son of Daedalus, the master craftsman commissioned by King Minos of Crete to build a Labyrinth for the monstrous, man-eating Minotaur. But Daedalus himself was imprisoned in the Labyrinth after he gave Ariadne, Minos’s daughter, a clew or ball of string to help the Athenian hero Theseus survive the unforgiving corridors of his elaborate maze and its nightmarish inhabitant. Daedalus, so the story goes, fashioned out of wax and feathers two sets of wings––one for himself and the other for his son. Before fleeing Crete, he told Icarus not to fly too close to the sea, as the moisture would clog his wings, nor too close to the sun, or the sun’s heat might melt the wax. And of course Icarus, blinded by his own ambition, disobeyed his father and flew too close to the sun. The wax holding his wings together promptly melted and then, as Ovid puts it, ‘he waves his naked arms instead of wings’, and he fell into the sea southwest of Samos which today bears his name.
The story of Icarus is an enduring fable about ambition. Since Ovid’s treatment of the myth it has fascinated writers such as Shakespeare, Chaucer and Milton, whose Paradise Lost depicts the nine-day plunge of Lucifer, an exaggerated Icarian figure himself, into Hell. Centuries later W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” called attention to Pieter Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. He writes: “how everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster … the white legs disappearing into the green”. In the mid 20th century the Harvard University psychologist Henry Murray proposed the term Icarus complex for those who showed symptoms of narcissism, a fascination with fire and water and, unsurprisingly, a fondness for heights.
The actor-turned-documentarian Bryan Fogel is only the latest person to appropriate the tragic character’s name and Icarus, his resulting film, is perhaps the unlikeliest documentary success of the year. This is not least because Fogel sets out to achieve one thing and ends up with something quite different.
The actor-turned-documentarian Bryan Fogel is only the latest person to appropriate the tragic character’s name and Icarus, his resulting film, is perhaps the unlikeliest documentary success of the year. This is not least because Fogel sets out to achieve one thing and ends up with something quite different. Fogel is concerned at the beginning of the film only with doping in elite cycling. It’s something of an open secret that there is widespread performance-enhancing drug use in the cycling world; the aim of the game is not to get caught. In fact, as Fogel points out, Lance Armstrong was never found to have cheated: he was implicated by just one of the many people with whom he made enemies in his attempts to avoid justice.
Fogel himself is a competitive cyclist, and with this in mind he decides to take part in something of a daring personal experiment: he decides to undergo a full doping cycle in time for the hardest amateur cycling race in the world, the Haute Route. It is, in Fogel’s words, like the “hardest seven days of the Tour de France … back to back.” He wants to see how fast he can go while doped up to the eyeballs, but he also wants to get away with it. To do this he enlists the help of an anti-doping scientist at UCLA but it isn’t long until that scientist gets cold feet. And this is where the film gets interesting, because the scientist points Fogel to the eccentric director of Moscow’s Anti-Doping Centre: Grigory Rodchenkov.
Like the bizarre and brilliant Tickled, in which David Farrier’s investigation into “competitive endurance tickling” pulls back the curtain on a world of intimidation, manipulation and a grim figure better suited to a horror film, Icarus accidentally captures something its creator never planned it to capture. In this case it was an event of international significance: the Russian Olympic Doping Scandal, which prompted the Olympic Commission’s largest ever recall of medals and shined a light on state-sponsored performance-enhancing drug use by Russian athletes that goes back to the nervous years of the Cold War.
Like the bizarre and brilliant Tickled, in which David Farrier’s investigation into “competitive endurance tickling” pulls back the curtain on a world of intimidation, manipulation and a grim figure better suited to a horror film, Icarus accidentally captures something its creator never planned it to capture.
The film is all the more watchable because Fogel himself is along, so to speak, for the ride. He abandons his initial documentary idea––“Super Size Me with steroids instead of Big Macs,” as one journalist called it––and places his attention squarely on Rodchenkov and the story that is rapidly unravelling around him. Fogel and Rodchenkov form something like a friendship which is tested when the eccentric Russian scientist is forced to leave, or rather flee, Moscow for the United States out of fear of violent reprisal. In Icarus, the anxiety Rodchenkov feels is obviously acute. (His fear was later vindicated when the American government put him into protective custody).
On the whole the film is fascinating and entertaining. Strangely enough the many ancillary questions that surround the subject of doping in sport ––the ethics of the thing and its effects on health, for instance––are largely ignored. Nevertheless this is an excellent debut documentary film, even if its final manifestation wasn’t exactly planned.