Russian anti-corruption loudmouth and political renegade Alexei Navalny has been the biggest pain in Vladimir Putin’s ass for years… so much so that Putin won’t even say his name. That this absolutely brilliant documentary about him lands now, when the world is not short of reminders of Putin’s awfulness but can always use another, is just another example of its absolute brilliance.
You may remember that in August 2020, Navalny took sick on a flight in Siberia and two days later was evacuated to a hospital in Berlin, where it was discovered that he had been poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok. Which just so happens to be a favorite weapon deployed against Putin’s enemies. Canadian documentarian Daniel Roher shot Navalny secretly in Germany in the months after, following his subject’s recovery and recuperation and, much more pertinently, his investigation into nailing down who, precisely, was responsible for the assassination attempt, how they pulled it off, and how to prove that Putin was behind it.
As a real-life procedural, Navalny is as gripping and as hugely suspenseful as a finely wrought fictional thriller. As a portrait of the man himself, this is sheer delight: Navalny is effortlessly charming and enormously engaging; he’s even really funny, sometimes in a sardonic, whistling-past-the-graveyard way. Opposition leaders — he heads up the political party Russia of the Future, and has run for president — are rarely so hilariously, you know, opposite: compared to the pathetic iconic images of Putin shirtless on a horse or surrounded by female flight attendants, apparently desperate to convince the world (and himself) of his virility, Navalny is a picture of a man at ease with himself, gentle with his masculinity, using his affable but undeniable force of personality to make the world a nicer, fairer place. It’s the most sublime fuck-you to Putin in a movie that is all about that.
I really did not expect a movie with such serious intent, one that could potentially have world-altering impact, to be so spectacularly entertaining.
Almost more important than Navalny’s depiction of the man is its look at the paradigm shift in media, information, politics, and propaganda that we’re seeing play out right now on the global stage. We’ve all been watching the masterful online campaigning of Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, in his nation’s pushback against the recent Russian invasion. I’m not sure how many of us in the West realize that Navalny’s been waging a similar campaign for years; he has almost 3 million followers on Twitter, 3.5 million on Instagram, and almost 6.5 million on YouTube. (I didn’t know this, and I thought I was fairly up on this stuff. Though to be fair, much of Navalny’s social media presence is in Russian. His English is excellent, however, as we hear here.) Combine that with the research of data journalist Christo Grozev of the website Bellingcat — the “nice Bulgarian nerd with a laptop,” as Navalny calls him, whose investigation of the assassination attempt here provides essential breakthroughs in the mystery — and this is a document of the power of the internet in changing the world. (Yes, sometimes for the better.)
Filmmaking doesn’t get much more daring than this — the very existence of this documentary was kept under wraps until a surprise announcement just before its debut at Sundance earlier this year — and movies don’t get much more crucial. The more people everywhere know about Navalny, the more difficult it may be for Putin to do him ultimate harm. (Navalny was arrested upon his return to Russia in January 2021 — we witness his tense arrival back in Moscow — and is currently serving a long sentence at a labor colony after being convicted at a trial that Amnesty International has declared a sham.) Navalny represents genuine hope for a Russia beyond Putin… which is a hope that the entire planet urgently needs right now.