Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 4, 2017


Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:43 pm

Opening at the IFC Center in NYC as well as on Netflix VOD, “Icarus” is an oddly compelling tale about the Russian use of performance enhancement drugs (PEDs) in international sporting events that like the hacking reports was used to make the Kremlin look bad. Just as the accusation about Russia interfering in our elections is the height of hypocrisy (the USA is the world’s champion at this), so is the furor over doping. American athletes do the same thing both in amateur and professional sports. The explanation for interfering in elections and gaining unfair advantage in athletic competition is fairly simple. Powerful capitalist nations like the USA and Russia see both as spectacles used to con a depoliticized population. What better way to get peoples’ minds off their economic woes than to get them sitting in front of a TV set watching presidential candidates “debating” or jumping off a diving board?

“Icarus” was directed by Bryan Fogel, a man in his early 40s or so who has only one credit to his name before this film—“Jewtopia”, a 2012 romantic comedy about a Christian who pretends to be Jewish to woo the woman of his dreams.

As the film begins, Fogel is seen competing in an amateur but grueling bicycle road race. He has been at it since an early age but never finishes better than 14 or so, as he did in this race. Since the news of Lance Armstrong’s use of PED’s was so widespread, Fogel began to put two and two together. Maybe he can’t win a race because he is not doping like everybody else?

This leads him to try an experiment. Instead of eating nothing but McDonalds for a month like Morgan Spurlock did in “Super Size Me”, Fogel would used PEDs before entering his next race. In other words, the documentary would be about using his body for a mixture of laughs and social criticism.

To start his experiment, he needed a connection as we used to put it in the sixties. That connection turned out to be Grigory Rodchenkov, the director of the Russian laboratory assigned to test athletes for PED’s. Since he knew what to look for, he would be an ideal guide as to which drugs to use and how to avoid detection.

Once he and Rodchenko start working together, the film has the sort of entertainment value as “Super Size Me”. We see Fogel giving himself injections in his buttocks and following a pill-swallowing regimen that is about as punishing as eating Big Macs and—according to some—just as injurious to your health.

Abruptly, the film takes a sharp turn when investigators start to look into Russian PED use after German television did a Sixty Minute type investigation in December 2014. That led to WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) putting the spotlight on Russia and particularly on Rodchenko’s lab.

Worried that he might become a scapegoat for the Kremlin that obviously ordered him to overlook the evidence of doping, Rodchenko fled to the USA and became a key figure in the scandal. So midway in the film, he became the star and Fogel became the extra.

That likely made it a much more interesting film since Rodchenko is a larger than life character. He is a voluble, self-dramatizing and mostly likeable figure who might have been played by someone like Robin Williams if this was a narrative film.

Much of the film depicts the labyrinthine measures that Rodchenko took to switch urine samples at the Sochi Olympics. They make anything done in the Oceans 11 movies look like child’s play.

My recommendation is to see the film at the IFC or on Netflix but also to see it alongside “Bigger, Stronger, Faster”, a film I reviewed in 2008 and that can be seen on Amazon VOD for $5.99. Unlike most of the sports commentariat, it takes the bold position that steroids are harmless and that taking them does not really make competition less tawdry than it already is. From my review:

A documentary that has the audacity to make the case for steroids in a period when its use or advocacy can only be compared to membership in the Communist Party in the 1950s. Directed by Chris Bell, a long-time user of and believer in steroids, the film owes much to the Michael Moore genre, with the short, heavily-muscled but paunchy Chris Bell taking the audience along with him on a whimsical tour of the world of steroids-one that starts with his own conventional Catholic family in upstate New York in the early 1980s. Along with his two brothers Mark and Mike, they became big fans of professional wrestling and used to spend hour after hour in their parent’s basement imitating the way that 3 to 400 pound athlete/actors body-slamming each other. Next they discovered body-building and were particularly inspired by Arnold Schwarzenegger who made a speech during the height of the steroid witch-hunt defending the need for drug-free sports. It was later revealed by men who trained with him that he was on the juice the entire time he was coming up the ranks.

Unlike baseball players, the world of professional body-building and wrestling-the sports (loosely speaking) that the Bell brothers participated in-has not been subject to the same kind of close scrutiny and prosecution. The three brothers not only refused to stop using steroids, they even became advocates on its behalf. With his wry sense of humor and his sense of the hypocrisy of American double-standards with respect to chemical aids in all walks of life, Chris Bell is a very effective spokesman for a distinctly distaff viewpoint. Put succinctly, the movie demonstrates very effectively that steroids are harmless (the claims of ‘droid rage’ and steroid-induced cancer are unfounded) and that chemical aids are used in all sorts of activity, including playing the violin!

In an interview on a website that sells steroids and other chemical aids (where else), Chris Bell is asked what inspired him to make this movie. He answered:

I always had the idea to do a film on steroids. But I was searching for the core thought of the movie. What is this movie really about? Well, it’s about steroids. But you can’t just say ‘it’s about steroids,’ you have to come up with some clever hook to make the film work. So I’m thinking what is it really about? Then I saw Senator Joseph Biden speaking about steroids. He was pounding his fist on the table at a Congressional hearing saying that there’s something simply un-American about steroids! And I thought about it. I’m thinking about my brothers. I’m thinking that I used steroids; I’ve tried them before. Are we un-American? Are my brothers and I un-American? Or is there nothing more American than doing whatever it takes to be number one in our country? And that’s the core thought of the film.

Considering Biden’s place in the body politic today, I am not only inclined to applaud Chris Bell’s but ready to order some steroids myself. I could certainly use some bulking up.


  1. I have a (formerly) German friend who is big into various sports both as a viewer and a doer. He likes soccer (ooops! FOOTBALL), Ultimate Frisbee, etc. One day I suggested to him that the whole hullabaloo about PEDs was a big bunch of hooey and that ALL athletes should be allowed to use any PEDs they want, on the logic that even then we would still be able to see the very best in the various sports, despite all the steroids. He would have none of it. We have remained friends, though.

    Comment by uh...clem — August 4, 2017 @ 7:37 pm

  2. You write: “The explanation for … gaining unfair advantage in athletic competition is fairly simple. Powerful capitalist nations like the USA and Russia see both as spectacles used to con a depoliticized population.” So how do you explain similar programs in the USSR and German Democratic Republic? Do you now view those countries as capitalist?

    I suspect that a systematic athletic “cheating” program in capitalist Russia is in many ways a simple continuation of an athletic program that existed before Russia went capitalist.

    Comment by Alan Ginsberg — August 4, 2017 @ 9:31 pm

  3. Economically, the USSR and East Germany were post-capitalist but their approach to sports was influenced more by Stakhanovism than Madison Avenue.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 4, 2017 @ 9:46 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: