Bryan Fo­gel wanted to learn how to cheat. The Rus­sian he met proved to be a master.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Glenn Whipp glenn.whipp@la­times.com Twitter: @glen­nwhipp

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 — self­p­reser­va­tion. 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.

Netf lix

AMA­TEUR cy­clist Bryan Fo­gel wanted to learn about dop­ing, post-Lance Arm­strong scan­dal.

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