If the title didn’t immediately flag it, “Icarus” is high off its own sense of profundity, something punctuated by how the documentary frequently features actual read excerpts from Orwell’s 1984, eventually flat-out structuring itself around quotes from the book. But with its bizarre and compelling pivot from a Super Size Me-esque attempt on the filmmaker’s part to enhance himself with as many drugs as he can to try and race better, to an uncovering of the extent of institutional illicit drug use in competitive sports, to a sort of geopolitical thriller unfolding in real time does earn the film a lot of the gravity it shoots for.
The first hat the film wears, what it was originally meant to be, is interesting enough, going through the technical and process-based aspects of loading one’s self up with drugs methodically in an attempt to climb the leaderboards of cycling. For a variety of reasons it doesn’t quite work out, and there’s a shaggy sense to the documentary as it lurches to its second focus, the charismatic Grigory Rodchenkov and the Byzantine world of doping he was a part of.
There’s a real sense of there being masses upon masses of footage here and a struggle to make sense of them, or present them in a way that’d work best in a film. What made it into the final film is compelling enough that it always works, but it makes the whole thing feel uneven and shapeless at times. Where it does succeed is in showing the interconnectivity of things, the results of insistently pulling at threads.
The narrativised, very dramatic approach does keep the film understandable and easy-to-follow, and is an interestingly cinematic approach for a documentary to take. The pacing and structure, for all its unevenness, is sort of the star here, as the improvisational nature of the film, as it winds around its ever-deepening revelations, leads to some breathtaking sequences. Well-executed, if choppy. Three and a half bicycles and a copy of 1984.