Bryan Fogel’s work was cut out for him when he chose to direct a follow-up to Icarus, his 2017 deep dive into sports doping and the elaborate system of cheating among Russian Olympians. That film closed with a cliff-hanger. Having turned whistleblower mid-film, Grigory Rodchenkov, the architect of the state-sanctioned doping program, fled Russia and was in hiding stateside. To continue to tell his story, the challenge for Fogel lay not just in the artistic shadow cast by his vividly told Oscar winner. Complicating the making of a sequel was a crucial constraint: To protect the safety of the documentary’s central figure, Fogel wouldn’t be able to interact with him directly.
The solution was to embed a single cameraperson, producer Jake Swantko, with Rodchenkov and his security team. Tracking his life on the lam for nearly five years, Icarus: The Aftermath is both more intimate and of broader scope than the earlier film. It’s documentary as spy thriller, a portrait of institutional gaslighting, a legal nail-biter, an intimate look at the cost of refuting authoritarian doctrine, and, above all, an affecting character study.
Icarus: The Aftermath
The Bottom Line
Orwellian chills, poignant twists and turns.
The Aftermath reteams Fogel with Swantko, writer-producer Mark Monroe (who has worked on some of the most high-profile nonfiction features in recent years, among them The Cove, Hooligan Sparrow and Lucy and Desi) and composer Adam Peters. For those who didn’t see the earlier doc, the dexterous opening-credits recap tells you what you need to know, with a few helpful glances back during the film itself as well. With thriller lighting in law-office conference rooms and kinetic camerawork in temporary homes somewhere in the United States, the story unfolds with a fittingly unsettling rhythm (the editing is by Wyatt Rogowski and Lauren Brinkman), while Peters’ score shifts between percussive beats and dark, nerve-jangling chords.
Orwell is, understandably, near and dear to Rodchenkov. As the head of Russia’s Anti-Doping Center, his chief purpose was devising ways for the country’s Olympians to use performance-enhancing drugs and not get caught — a more accurate name for the agency would have been the Anti-Doping-Evidence Center. Strategies were science-based and borderline-ludicrous, among them a secret laboratory on a luxury ship, a mandate for athletes to pee in their pants, and a “Duchess cocktail” that used scotch or vodka to mask the pharmaceuticals.
Rodchenkov is a compelling protagonist with a big personality — brainy, gregarious, funny. His silences can be loaded with foreboding, and his effusiveness is childlike, especially when he’s expressing his feelings for the people who are working to protect him. These include a legal team, led by Jim Walden, who have reason to believe that there are Russian operatives looking for him in the U.S. (During his years on the run, headlines announce the poisoning of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia Skripal, in England, and that of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.)
The affection between Rodchenkov and Fogel is especially strong, evidenced in the Zoom call that marks their first contact in two and a half years. They manage a couple of in-person meetings too, the first of these memorialized with an almost romantic mini-montage at one of the secret stops on Rodchenkov’s underground travels.
Moving from place to place, often with little notice, the whistleblower monitors the official reaction back home, dyes his hair (with Swantko’s assistance) and soothes his nerves with whiskey. Somewhere along the way, not explored in the film, he writes a book, 2020’s The Rodchenkov Affair: How I Brought Down Russia’s Secret Doping Empire. In phone calls with his wife, Veronika, who’s still in Russia, his attempts to put a hopeful spin on their predicament don’t wash. “This is just hell,” she tells him. “Why did you even venture into this hell?”
As to who he is and how he got to this point, Fogel uses brisk animation (by Gary Breslin’s Office of Development & Design) to illustrate Rodchenkov’s days as a young athlete, when his own doping began — against his coach’s policy, and with his mother’s help. Swantko conducts a sit-down interview with him, in which he speaks of a persistent Soviet mentality in post-glasnost Russia. To that point, the doc includes footage of Putin disparaging him as a “nutjob” and calling treason the worst possible crime. A Russian TV commentator decries Rodchenkov’s “malicious intent toward our athletes.”
It would be a simplistic reading of the film to say that it’s proof of a unique brand of evil in the world. In Rodchenkov’s astute observation, “Whistleblowers are the most hated from both sides.” (Ask Julian Assange.) With the guidance of attorney Bo Cooper, Rodchenkov seeks asylum, and his case drags on for several years; at one point, a trade for Edward Snowden is considered.) Russia doesn’t have a monopoly on nationalist fervor and propaganda, but its particular brand of these, combined with shockingly old-school spycraft, set it apart. Yuri Ganus, Rodchenkov’s successor at the Anti-Doping Center, is a ray of reason and hope. He’s forthcoming and endorses the importance of whistleblowers in virtual interviews with Fogel that are both heartening and, concerning his safety, worrying.
In the grand geopolitical scheme of things, of course, there are far worse crimes than cheating at the Olympics. If anyone in 2022 still views the Games as a pure and holy endeavor and not a big business, they might also be shocked to learn that there’s gambling going on in Rick’s Café. The Aftermath includes interviews with member of WADA, the Olympics-affiliated World Anti-Doping Agency, all of whom express quiet disbelief in the backtracking and reversals that have put Russian athletes back in competition after the 2017 revelations that initially led to Russia being banned.
On the basis of his directing debut, Jewtopia, no one could have predicted that Fogel would become a filmmaker focused on truth-tellers and iconoclasts (between Icarus and his new film, he made The Dissident, a doc about the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi). The Aftermath reflects his personal commitment and casts a penetrating light on the larger forces that shape all our lives and, in the case of courageous dissenters like Rodchenkov, turn lives inside out, irrevocably.
The focus of Rodchenkov, his legal team and the filmmakers shifts for a while to the diaries he’s kept since a teenager, volumes that document his work for the Russian government. As to how the notebooks make it from Russia to the States, we’ll probably never know. The triumph, of course, is bittersweet; the diaries are most certainly the only things from Rodchenkov’s life in Russia that he’ll ever see again. Chronicling a leap into the unknown, Icarus: The Aftermath is a story of immense bravery and unspeakable sadness.