Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Tue Mar 06, 2018 5:02 am 
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GRIGORY RODCHENKOV AND BRYAN FOGEL IN ICARUS

Sports doping in Russia: collaboration with a whistleblower

Bryan Fogel was an actor and stand-up comic, later a successful playwright (for Jewtopia). This film doesn't show him in those roles, but it doesn't matter, because Icarus has turned him into an Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker. There was a bidding war for his film at Sundance, and Netflix bought it for $5 million. How did he score so high? Good material. His story about cheating, that is doping, in sport, first in high level cycling competition, then in Russia by nearly all its athletes in the Olympics, is newsworthy and exciting. Sometimes his film looks ugly, as if it were shot with a smartphone - some parts probably were - and it breathlessly recounts every detail, some of which could probably have been omitted without loss. But Fogel hit upon a subject matter on the edge of today's news, and of international importance, and he tells his quite complicated story in a manner that's clear, fast-paced, and precise.

This is the story of a whistleblower, really a two-man team of them, because the filmmaker himself is a partner and participant throughout the action. It starts out as Supersize Me and winds up as Citizenfour.

Fogel was a high-level amateur cyclist. He placed fourteenth in a major, gruellingly difficult Tour-de-France-like amateur race called the Haute Route. He decided to make a film using doping to show it could be undetected, and therefore could be used by everybody, not just Lance Armstrong and a few others. He became an experiment of one, injecting himself with testosterone and preparing for another Haute Route race.

To do this, he had to have an expert collaborator, and Grigory Rodchenkov, who had a Ph.D in analytical chemistry and was in charge of the anti-doping lab in Moscow, was referred to him. They clicked personally, they both loved dogs, and they bonded via Skype and then in person when Grigory came to meet Bryan. Oddly enough, due to personal setbacks he suffered in the actual race, Bryan did less well than he had the previous year. But his performance in training had increased by 20% or more, and his urine tested by Grigory indicated the doping didn't show.

At first the film's leading image is Bryan baring his butt or thigh and injecting it with dope, and preparing constant urine samples to convey to Grigory so he can be tested. In the process we get to know the good-natured, colorful Grigory, whose English is fluent, but very Russian. Later the focus shifts to Grigory, to his voice, his paunch, his fuzzy gray hair, and his amiable, bespectacled face. The spotlight is on the Russian now because he has made a huge decision, and he makes Bryan a collaborator in what he does.

Grigory chooses to expose the appalling sports cheating he has been in charge of covering up with the direct approval of three top sports officials of the country and Putin himself. Though this film isn't a history but a moment-to-moment present-day news story, Russians who speak to Fogel say the Russians have been doping their top athletes for decades. We learn in detail how the Russians under Rodchenkov run an elaborate system to hide steroid-tainted urine at the Sochi Winter Olympics, where they win an unusually high number of gold medals. Suspicions arose, and at Rio the Russian athletes were to be banned, but then the decision was reversed and only some were. (PyeongChang is not mentioned in this film, but there, the Olympic Committee suspended a number of Russian athletes, but determined those who had tested clean could compete as "Olympic Athlete from Russia.") Obviously this situation - not for the first time - undermines the integrity of athletic competition at the very highest level.

Fogel and Rodchenkov collaborate on his full personal story about the concealment of Russian sports doping published in an article in the New York Times on May 12th, 2016. At that point the die is cast for him, and Rodchenkov is persona non grata in Russia. But he has escaped to the US well before that, and Fogel is hiding him. The largest amount of Rodchenkov's information he gives in interviews with Fogel filmed in the US. The Russian government's high sports officials and Putin categorically and repeatedly deny Rodchenkov's allegations. Rodchenkov is convincing because he was in charge of the whole program. His revelations were confirmed by the independent McLaren Report. All this clearly has bearing on and is evidence of Russia's tampering in global affairs such as the election of Trump.

Once the focus shifts from Bryan to Grigory, it becomes a little like Citizenfour, Laura Poitras' 2015 Oscar-winning documentary about Edward Snowden. But it's a reversal: Snowden wound up hiding out in Russia, and Grigory would up in the Witness Protection Program somewhere in the US. Grigory Rodchenkov puts his life in danger, leaves his wife and children and dog behind in Russia, and in the end must say goodbye to his partner in all this, Bryan Fogel, and head off to points unknown.

Grigory Rodchenkov may be seen as a likeable scoundrel, not quiet and reerved like Edward Snowden but big and blowsy and good-natured, magnetic with Bryan's dog. He enabled Russia's fake anti-doping system, bypassing the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which became powerless. But then he chose to expose what the Russians had been doing. This, like the more austere and self-righteous Edward Snowden's action, takes great courage and sacrifice. Orwell's 1984, whose themes Fogel cunningly uses to structure the film, is a support and refuge for Grigory, who sees himself, not without reason, to be living in a dark and dangerous world. The doublethink sometimes seems to include the Olympic Committee. (See the post-Oscar interview with Fogel and Dan Cogan, the producer.)

Icarus, 121 mins., debuted at Sundance, whee it it won a newly created Special Jury "Orwell Award" and an Audience Choice Award; it was bought by Netflix, which released it in Aug. 2017. In Feb. 2018 it was awarded the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. To be honest, there were many excellent documentaries this year as in all recent years, and this is only one of them. But it is compelling, if more significant for Russians, as Citizenfour obviously is more significant for Americans.

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FROM THE NYTIMES ARTICLE - THE "TAMPER-PROOF" SOCHI BOTTLES

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┬ęChris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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