‘Icarus: The Aftermath’ Film Review: Sequel to Oscar-Winning Documentary Finds Emotion in Sporting Scandal

·5-min read
Telluride Film Festival

Five years ago, Bryan Fogel stumbled into a story that would change his life and help transform the world of international athletics. “Icarus” started as Fogel’s attempt to document whether he could use illegal doping to improve his results as an amateur cyclist. But it turned into something very different when the scientist he went to for advice on how to not be caught, Grigory Rodchenkov, turned out to be a key figure (and, with Fogel’s help, a whistleblower) in Russia’s extensive, state-sponsored doping program.

“Icarus” won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, and by the time it came out, Rodchenkov was in hiding in the U.S. and Russia was under investigation by international doping authorities who would ban the country from the 2018 Winter Olympics and subsequent Olympic games (though the band would contain enormous loopholes).

But the story didn’t end there, and Fogel unveiled a sequel, “Icarus: The Aftermath,” on the opening day of the 2022 Telluride Film Festival. If the first “Icarus” occasionally felt as if Fogel had happened upon a riveting subject but wasn’t quite able to do it cinematic justice, “Aftermath” is the work of a stronger and more assured director. It drops mind-boggling revelations about the extent of Russian doping and the lengths to which Vladimir Putin’s administration will go to silence dissidents and whistleblowers, but it’s also a deeply touching portrait of a man whose life was shattered because he got tired of being part of a system that ran on lies.

 

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“Where is Grigory Rodchenkov?” is a running question throughout “Aftermath,” and for much of the film neither we nor Fogel know the answer. He fled to the U.S. with Fogel’s help, but the security team that surrounds him won’t let the filmmaker contact him directly or know his whereabouts — although they do allow a single cameraman, Jake Swantko, to be embedded with Rodchenkov on and off for five years as he constantly moved from one home to another.

“You have to assume that there’s a team of Russians in the U.S. looking for him,” says Rodchenkov’s lawyer early in the film. And by the end, those suspicions have been confirmed by the FBI. Initially, much of the film is shot in shadows, and composer Adam Peters’ music is an urgent pulse that makes everything feel foreboding and dangerous.

Fogel is permitted to check in with Rodchenkov periodically – rarely in person, sometimes on video calls and sometimes in links where Rodchenkov can see Fogel but Fogel can’t see Rodchenkov. But we can see him because of the embedded cameraman, and mostly what we see is a rumpled, bearish middle-aged man padding around nondescript apartments and mountain cabins wearing nothing but a pair of shorts (though he puts on a bulletproof vest when he goes out). He’s allowed to call his wife infrequently – and when he does, most of the conversation we hear consists of her berating him for destroying the family by coming clean about Russian doping.

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“Do you ever wish that you hadn’t talked to Bryan?” the cameraman asks at one point.

“Decision was done,” Rodchenkov replies flatly. “That’s all.”

As the personal story unfolds, so does the international one. After initially insisting that Russia had never doped its athletes, Putin’s administration shifted to claiming that Rodchenkov was a rogue agent who did it all himself and is now a traitor. The evidence clearly suggests otherwise, but the Olympic ban is essentially toothless: It prohibits the Russian Olympic committee from being part of the games but allows athletes to compete under the “Olympic athletes from Russia” banner.

“There was no ban,” says one international doping official. “It’s nonsense.”

Rodchenkov, meanwhile, tries to retrieve the yearly diaries he’s been keeping since 1973, which contain copious real-time evidence of the Russian program. He’s secured them somewhere in Moscow and a friend uses the FIFA World Cup in Russia as a cover to retrieve them, in a sequence that Rodchenkov says is “like James Bond style.”

He drops more details of the Russian program along the way, and they’re downright crazy: He disguised a doping detector as a coffee bar on a boat at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 … After competing, athletes were told to pee in their pants as quickly as possible, then to chug as many beers as they could to dilute their urine before they’re tested …

Steroids leave traces in the intestines that can be detected for years, but if you dissolve them in alcohol, you can swirl the mixture in your mouth and not be detectable – so Rodchenkov created what he called “duchess cocktails,” with the performance-enhancing drugs mixed with whiskey for male athletes and martinis for female ones.

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On one level, “Icarus: The Aftermath” tells a distressingly familiar story: Russia gets caught, Russia denies, Russia is sanctioned, Russia appeals, the sanctions are reduced – repeat as needed. But Fogel lays it out in a way that is both dramatic and damning.

And apart from that macro story, he’s got that troubled and increasingly endearing man shrugging his shoulders and packing his bags as he leaves yet another temporary residence. “My life,” says Rodchenkov in the serviceable English he’ll have to use for the foreseeable future, “is still overwhelming and a page-turner.”

It’s also sad, with talk of plastic surgery and the witness protection program and a complete end to contact with his family. That’s the heart of “Aftermath,” and the film is all the stronger for it – that despite all the shocking details about doping and spying, it’s really the story of one man whose life has been utterly changed by his decision to speak out. There’s some triumph here, and some sorrow and a lot of ambivalence. “You have changed my life,” Rodchenkov tells Fogel at one point – and then, later in the film, he changes that to, “You have saved my life.” But this aftermath is far from over, and the true nature of that change and that salvation may well unfold in the shadows from now on.