Before Bryan Fogel embarked upon his debut documentary, “Icarus,” which revolves around Russia’s Olympic doping program, he was “desperate to not be the ‘Jewtopia’ guy.”
Fogel, 43, who grew up “Conservadox” in Denver, co-created “Jewtopia,” a comic play about a Jewish man who dislikes Jewish women and a non-Jew who wants to marry one. The play opened at the Coast Playhouse in West Hollywood in 2003 and became a hit. An off-Broadway production several years later enjoyed an often sold-out, three-and-a-half-year run. A “Jewtopia” coffee table book was published by Warner and dozens of “Jewtopia” plays were produced throughout North America.
But Fogel said that directing the 2013 movie version proved to be a “toxic experience” for him. The film was only briefly released in theaters and received poor reviews. Instead of launching his TV- and film-directing career, as he had hoped, “I came out of the film just completely beaten and really emotionally broken,” Fogel said. “I was really in a funk and a bit of a depression.”
As therapy, Fogel turned to his lifelong hobby of competitive cycling, a sport he avoided after a bike crash knocked out several of his teeth in a race when he was 19.
Then, in early 2013, one of Fogel’s cycling heroes, Lance Armstrong, admitted publicly that he had used banned performance-enhancing drugs throughout his winning of seven Tour de France titles, all the while evading detection. “So, I was going, ‘Wait, you tested him 500 times and you never caught him?’ ” Fogel recalled. “ ‘Like, are you kidding?’ So, I’m going, not ‘What’s wrong with Lance?’ [but rather] ‘What’s wrong with this bull—- system?’ ”
So, Fogel got the idea to film a documentary in which he would take the drugs, enter a major amateur cycling competition and see if he could beat the urine testing required by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
To do so, he sought out an expert to advise him on which drugs to take. One Los Angeles scientist declined Fogel’s request but recommended that he contact Grigory Rodchenkov, director of the WADA-approved antidoping lab in Moscow. The documentary chronicles how Rodchenkov eventually outlined Fogel’s doping regimen, even traveling to Los Angeles to smuggle the filmmaker’s urine back to his lab for testing. “All the labs in the world will be confused by your piss,” he gleefully tells Fogel.
The filmmaker goes on to evade detection as he competes in a grueling amateur cycling race through the French Alps.
Along the way, Fogel and Rodchenkov become good friends. But one day, Rodchenkov surprises Fogel by suggesting he view a 2014 German television documentary that features him in an exposé of Russian doping.
“I watched this thing and I went, ‘Holy s—,” Fogel said.
In November 2015, WADA published a report alleging Rodchenkov was the brains behind Russia’s Olympic cheating program.
In a Skype video call included in the documentary, the Russian scientist reveals to Fogel that he fears he might be assassinated for his allegations of a state-sponsored doping program. “I need to escape,” he says. Fogel promptly buys Rodchenkov an airplane ticket to Los Angeles — a round-trip ticket to avoid suspicion — and arranges for him to stay in a series of three safe houses in 2015 and 2016. “I felt a tremendous burden to protect him,” Fogel said.
Rodchenkov says he has wiped his laboratory computer clean but possesses three hard drives with thousands of incriminating documents. The filmmakers helped him hide the hard drives around Los Angeles, but the drives eventually were turned over to the FBI, the Justice Department and WADA, Fogel said.
Soon after fleeing to Los Angeles, Rodchenkov learns that two of his colleagues in the doping scheme died under mysterious circumstances in Russia. He is distraught and frightened by the news, as is Fogel.
In the film, he tells Fogel meticulous details of how he and others arranged to thwart detection of doping at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia — cloak-and-dagger methods that included secretly swapping out dirty urine samples with clean ones.
Meanwhile, the FBI and U.S. Justice Department may want Rodchenkov to serve as a possible witness in their investigation of the Russian doping allegations, although Fogel is unclear about what the agencies’ goals are for investigating a case that involves another country.
Further into the film, Fogel helps the Russian scientist find attorneys and persuades him to go public with his knowledge, for safety reasons, by providing details to The New York Times. The Times runs a front-page story on Rodchenkov in May 2016. Thereafter, Rodchenkov says his relatives in Moscow have been interrogated, their passports seized and the family’s assets confiscated. Russian authorities also have instigated criminal charges against him.
In the film, we see Fogel representing Rodchenkov at a gathering of top WADA officials who want to know what the lab director did. “Is he sorry?” an angry scientist asks Fogel at the meeting. The filmmaker replies that Rodchenkov risked his life to reveal his documents, left his wife and children and all his belongings behind in Russia, and is now committed to telling the truth.
Meanwhile, Russian leaders deny — as they do now — that the state sponsored the doping project and insist that Rodchenkov was a lone wolf. Russian news media also run a number of stories on the scientist’s friendship with Fogel. “All the claims against the government, he did himself,” the Kremlin’s minister of sports says in a clip from a top Russian TV news show.
In July 2016, Rodchenkov went into protective custody with the FBI and the Department of Justice, which may use him as a witness or even prosecute him in their ongoing investigation, Fogel said. He added that he hasn’t seen or spoken to Rodchenkov in a year but has learned through the scientist’s attorney that Rodchenkov is OK, currently residing in an undisclosed location for his safety.
“Icarus” was well received at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. But a feature story in the Los Angeles Times suggested that Fogel portrayed the flawed scientist strictly as a hero — an interpretation Fogal disagrees with.
“I see him as a very, very complicated person because he’s lived a very, very complicated life,” Fogel told the Journal. “I think it’s easy from a Western perspective to go into the very simple good/bad, right/wrong point of view. But from a Russian perspective, from Grigory’s perspective, this was a guy who was born into the system … [and] the entire system was always doping and trying to avoid detection.”
Why did Rodchenkov offer Fogel intimate information about his conspiracies on camera? He did so not only to save himself from potential Russian retribution, he wanted to come clean, the filmmaker said.
“He had had enough,” Fogel said. “He no longer wanted to live with this information.”
“Icarus” opens in Los Angeles theaters on Aug. 4 and is available on Netflix.