Sundance Review: Daniel Roher Documentary Thriller ‘Navalny’

·4 min read

Alexei Navalny, Russia’s highest-profile opposition figure, perennial thorn in Putin’s side and currently a guest in state prison, gets a vigorous up-close-and-personal look in this eventful, fest-moving, never-a-dull-moment documentary from Daniel Roher. A collaboration between HBO Max and CNN Films, Navalny, provides a sustained look at a good-looking, articulate and seemingly unafraid family man who came very close to being murdered on August 20, 2020 by what were quite clearly politically hired killers. The privileged access provides the opportunity for an international public to get a handle on a driven personality who consistently said things very few others are willing to risk. Anyone who follows contemporary international politics will eat it up.

. - Credit: Deadline
. - Credit: Deadline

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“I will be a kind of martyr ‘til the end of my days,” Navalny muses early on in very good English, and he certainly can’t claim that he didn’t know what would happen to him when he returned to Russia with his family on a commercial flight from Germany exactly a year ago and was immediately thrown into the penitentiary, where he remains.

That Navalny has long been a pain for Putin is amusingly made clear in an excerpted televised talk the Russian leader gave a few years ago when he complained about his opponent at length but could never bring himself to utter his name. Tall, blondish, blue-eyed, charismatic and younger looking than his 45 years, Navalny had a fellowship at Yale, dubbed himself an “anti-corruption activist,” named his political party “Russia of the Future” and ran for president in 2016.

All of the above would be more than enough to incite Putin and his cohorts and you might think the leader’s lock on power was sufficient to keep any opposition upstarts in check. But evidently even a smidgen of dissent is too much for the all-powerful, so two days after the broadcast of a Navalny television report on corruption in Siberia, the plane he was on made an emergency landing so he could be immediately put on a ventilator in an attempt to save his life. Soon after he was moved to Berlin, where he recovered from what was clearly an attempt to kill him with a poison that was traced to the Signal Institute in Moscow, which officially specializes in sports nutrition drinks.

Others might have been chastened or motivated to lay low after such an experience, but Navalny, whose father’s family was from Chernobyl,
pressed on. In an extraordinary series of phone calls made by Navalny and a tech staff led by legendary data journo/hacker Christo Grozev, the would-be victim calls around to known or presumed identified suspects and actually gets some recorded admissions about the hit job. One admits that, “We rehearsed it many times. If the flight was a bit longer, I think things would have gone the other way.”

After gathering all the intelligence possible, Navalny holds a press conference to present the time-line of events that “could only have been approved by Vladimir Putin” and goes on to say that, “I accuse him of state terrorism.”

Again avoiding the mention of his gadfly’s name, Putin gives a news conference to state that this “patient at the Berlin clinic” was receiving support from the CIA. “Who cares about him?,” he disingenuously ponders.

Having pretty well recovered from the desperate episode, Navalny presumably could have stayed in the West indefinitely. Instead, on January 17, 2021, he and his family returned to Moscow, which was a hair-raising adventure in itself that’s vividly caught on camera. With press (mostly COVID-masked) jamming in to speak with the man of the hour before landing, there is enormous speculation about what will happen once they land.

But as the plane descends for its landing, the pilot announces that, “due to technical issues on the ground,” the plane is diverted to a different Moscow airport, where Navalny briefly speaks to the press before being spirited away by police as the large crowd yells to let him go. The last words we hear him say are, “Don’t give up!”

It’s a swift, inspiring, propulsive film with a dashing and intelligent central figure enacting a drama that he can’t possibly win, except for a freak of luck or in the eventual annals of history.

Anyone remotely interested in contemporary politics will eat it up.

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