The problem with reviewing a documentary as terrific as Icarus is that to even  describe the plot is to diminish the visceral punch of film; the real-life events lay out an arc that the story must follow.

So let’s start here: This review is an entire spoiler alert. To fully appreciate the movie, see it with as little advance knowledge as possible. It’s worth it.

The product of freshman energy and fortuitous timing, Icarus is a searing examination of doping in the sports world — and Russia’s particular fascination and unofficial sanction of it. Directed and co-written by Bryan Fogel in his first documentary, Icarus exposes Russia’s massive sports doping program while playing a bit like an absurdist thriller.

The film begins with a Supersize Me-like proposition: Fogel, an amateur bicyclist devastated by the Lance Armstrong scandal, decides to dope for the brutal Haute Route amateur race — and beat the myriad doping tests that accompany it. Fogel explains that if Armstrong could beat more than 500 doping tests in his career, surely he could game one race undetected. Fogel does — and it nearly derails the film. Though he manages to go uncaught, his race times  are poorer under performance enhancing drugs, leaving him bitterly discouraged.

It’s here where the real star of the movie, Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, takes over. Eloquent and  boyish with more than a little mischievousness, Rodchenkov was head of Russia’s Anti-Doping Centre for more than a decade.

Why he would participate in an American expose on doping is never fully explained, one of Icarus’ few faults. But the doctor is so affable — he bonds with Fogel when the men show their dogs over Skype — that after a while, we don’t care why he’s doing it. If anything, we  root harder for him to get away with it as Russian authorities seek a singular culprit in the doping scandal of the 2016 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.

Much of Icarus’ potency comes from its extraordinary timing, which turns the documentary into a thriller Tom Clancy could pen. As misfortune befalls other Russian doping authorities, Rodchenko’s whispered plea to be rescued from Russia is as potent as any drama we will see in 2017. That startling pivot from expose to escape flick makes Icarus’ 2-hour runtime feel all too brief. There are a half dozen scenes that could have ended the film, including court evidence of a Russian doping scheme that, literally, dropped the jaws of witnesses. The movie has the same effect.

The film ends on a postscript that is just as unnerving as the facts it uncovered: Rodchenko remains in U.S. witness protection for fear that Putin will have the doctor assassinated. Given the real-world tensions of the Russia-election probe, Rodchenko’s fate could make for another documentary.

For now, though, we have more than enough in Icarus, a movie that brings the sports world’s doping house of cards tumbling down.

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