Focusing on Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, this Sundance Audience Award-winning documentary is as gripping as any spy thriller.
August 25, 2022
UPDATE, March 13, 2023: Navalny is available to stream via Docplay, SBS On Demand, Google Play, YouTube Movies, iTunes and Prime Video.
Man on Wire did it with The Walk, The Times of Harvey Milk sparked Milk and Dogtown and Z-Boys brought about Lords of Dogtown. Werner Herzog went from Little Dieter Needs to Fly to Rescue Dawn, too, and the Paradise Lost films were followed by Devil's Knot. One day, Navalny will join this growing list. Documentaries inspiring dramas isn't new, and Alexei Navalny's life story would scream for a biopic even if director Daniel Roher (Once Were Brothers) hadn't gotten there first — and so compellingly, or in such an acclaimed way, winning the 2022 Sundance Film Festival's Audience Award for its US doco competition in the process. When you're a Russian opposition leader crusading against corruption and Vladimir Putin, there's going to be a tale to tell. Usually only Hollywood screenwriters can conjure up a narrative like the one that Navalny has been living, though, typically in a Bourne-style spy thriller.
Actually, John le Carré, Ian Fleming or Tom Clancy might've come up with something similar; still, even the former, the author responsible for such espionage efforts such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Night Manager, could've struggled to imagine details this staggering. Creating a fictional character as complicated, captivating and candid as Navalny's namesake would've also been a stretch. Indeed, there are two key aspects to this engrossing doco: everything that it explores about its subject's life, especially in recent years, which is a dream for a documentary filmmaker; and the engaging pro-democracy advocate himself. Often Navalny chats to camera about his experiences, demanding and earning the viewer's attention. In a movie that doesn't overlook his flaws, either, he's equally riveting when he's searching for a crucial truth.
Another stark fact haunts Navalny from the outset: it was never guaranteed that he'd be alive to see the film come to fruition, let alone reach an audience. The outspoken Putin critic, lawyer and dissident confronts that grim reality early on, giving Roher the holy grail of soundbites. "Let's make a thriller out of this movie,' he says. "And if I'm killed, let's make a boring movie about memory," he continues. In August 2020, Navalny nearly didn't make it, after all. In an incident that understandably attracted international headlines and just as expectedly sits at the core of this documentary, he was poisoned while flying from Tomsk in Siberia to Moscow. The toxin: a Novichok nerve agent. The instantly suspected culprits: the Kremlin, as part of an assassination plot that he survived.
No matter whether you're aware of the minutiae from press coverage when it happened — or of his treatment by Russia prior or since, in a country that hasn't taken kindly to his campaign against its president — or you're stepping through his tale for the first time while watching, Navalny couldn't be more gripping as it gets sleuthing as well. Among other things, it's an attempted-murder mystery. That fateful flight was diverted to Omsk because Navalny was so violently and deathly ill due to the Soviet-era toxin. His stint in hospital was tense, and evacuating him to safety in Berlin was never guaranteed. Although the poisoning is just one aspect of his story, and of this astonishing and anger-inciting film, identifying the people responsible is firmly one of Navalny's quests and Navalny's focuses.
With extraordinarily intimate access, befitting his central figure's frankness and determination, Roher shot the aftermath of the incident as it unfolded; one moment in particular must be seen to be believed. Navalny takes up help from Christo Grozev, an investigative journalist from Netherlands-based group Bellingcat (or "a nice Bulgarian nerd with a laptop" as he's called here). As the evidence mounts, they start contacting the men they've worked out were involved. Most calls end promptly. Then, when Navalny impersonates a Kremlin higher-up, phoning to get answers as to why the plot went wrong, answers spill (answers that involve Navalny's underwear, in fact). With apologies to the most skilled screenwriters and authors that've plied their trade in spy narratives, this is an exchange so wild that it can only be true, as Navalny's audience witnesses while perched on the edge of their seats.
This is a compulsive, revelatory, fast-paced movie, as directed with agility by Roher. There's as much of a pulse to its early summary of Navalny's career, including what led him to become such a target, as there is to his to-camera discussions and the unravelling of the Novichok ordeal. News footage and imagery shot on mobile phones help fill in the gaps with the latter, but the as-it-happens calls — and the digging before it — are so suspenseful and so deftly shot by cinematographer Niki Waltl (In the Bunker) and spliced by editors Maya Hawke (Janis: Little Girl Blue) and Langdon Page (Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures) that it's hard to see how any dramatisation could top it. Composers Marius de Vries (CODA) and Matt Robertson (a music programmer on Cats) add a nerve-shredding score, too, as part of the doco's polish. Navalny doesn't need it, as seeing its subject's flight back to Russia in January 2021 after recuperating to Germany — a flight back to charges and imprisonment — also makes plain, but the whole package is expertly assembled.
There's still more in the absorbing documentary's sights, such as Navalny's relationships with his ever-supportive wife Yulia and children Dasha and Zakhar; his social-media following and the well-oiled flair for getting his message out there, including via TikTok; the charisma that's helped him strike such a wide-ranging chord; and his fondness of playing Call of Duty. Navalny is a frightening portrait of Russia, an account of battling its oppressive status quo and a layered character study alike — and, smartly and astutely, that means looking at the man in its moniker's past approach to consolidating opposition to Putin as well. Navalny has previously thrown in with far-right groups to amass a cohort against the Russia leader, a move that warrants and gets a thorough line of questioning, resulting in frustration on his part. As it lays bare what it involves to confront authoritarian power, demand freedom and fight against the state while putting your life on the line — be it in inspiring or dubious-at-best ways — this film has to be unflinching: it couldn't be as complex as it is otherwise.
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