The opening moments of “Navalny,” the biographical documentary of Russian dissident, muckraker and opposition political candidate Alexei Navalny establish just how gutsy the guy is.
A photogenic 40something lawyer who became a big thorn in president-pretty-much-for-life Vladimir Putin’s side, important enough to merit assassination attempts and lifetime bans from so much as a mention from the Russian state media, we see him lead a crowd of protesters in a chant.
“What is Vladimir Putin?”
“Well,” he says (in Russian, with English subtitles), “YOU said it, not me.”
We’ve already seen filmmaker Daniel Roher hit this slick, media-savvy politico with a whopper of an opening question — “If you are killed, what message will you leave behind for the Russian people?”
We remember “the poisoning,” the attempted murder that almost worked, even if we don’t recall exactly where this anti-dictator gadfly is in the middle of Putin’s disastrous and murderous assault on Ukraine.
So it’s no shock when we see him lead an entourage of reporters on board a passenger flight to return to the Russian Federation after his long convalescence after the most infamous and nearly-successful assassination attempt. What is shocking is that anybody else would be brave enough to get on that plane with him. All Navalny’s cracks about how “stupid” the would-be “Czar” was in using the same method and poison to attack him that Putin’s minions had used on others aside, if the untouchable Vlad wants him dead that bad, it takes nerve to even be in his sworn enemy’s presence.
Roher, who did the fine Robbie Robertson-centric documentary about The Band (“Once Were Brothers”), followed Navalny, talked to his wife and daughter and associates and asks enough tough questions that we feel we’re getting a reasonably balanced portrait of the man.
Navalny dodges some questions (like that first one) and finesses his own early flirtation with far right Russian parties in the hopes of creating an anti-Putin “coalition.” The portrait that emerges is that of a dogged, principled (by Russian standards) muckraker who exposes corruption in the Russian oligarchy, an accomplished TikTok/Youtube warrior who uses such platforms to broadcast his exposes and organize his movement since most Russian media are afraid to cover him.
The money sequence in “Navalny” comes when the dissident finds himself in league with Bellingcat Media chief Christo Grozev, a Bulgarian journalist of means who funds data-based investigations into corruption worldwide, but especially in Eastern Europe. Gozev is the guy willing to pay for copies of flight manifests, lab directories, driver’s licenses and the like to track down the “assassination team” that went after Navalny.
This is the film’s centerpiece, a mid-movie moment where the data have identified who had the access to the rare poison, their employment history and the plane tickets them put them in remote Siberia with Navalny where his latest expose led to him almost dying on the flight home.
We see Navalny, a lawyer by training, eyeball the photos and resumes of the trio, trying to find “the dumb one,” the one he can trick into giving away the plot in just a phone call.
It’s riveting cinema, a roller coaster of emotions among those involved as they’re at first elated at hearing a damning confession by a tricked conspirator, to the sober realization of what this unemotional creep was capable of, and what fate awaits him when this tape-recorded phone chat (Navalny pretends to be someone else–expertly so) becomes public.
Some find this documentary “hopeful,” despite the protest candidate’s ongoing “legal” problems in Mother Russia, despite Putin’s apparent firm grip on power in the face of international condemnation. With Putin’s age and hints from his appearance, and from the not-that-cunning-after-all blunders exposing him as as “stupid” as Navalny suggests, maybe there is cause for optimism that Russia can be changed via internal politics or “the traditional way” Russian leaders leave office — death.
Then you remember the history, recent and ancient, that made the place what it was and pretty much has been forever after and you wonder if Navalny should have dodged that “after you die” question after all.
Rating: R for some language
Cast: Alexei Navalny, Yulia Navalnaay, Dasha Navalnaya, Christo Grozev, Mariya Pevchikh, Clarissa Ward
Credits: Directed by Daniel Roher, A CNN Films/HBO Max/Warner Brothers release coming to CNN April 24.
Running time: 1:38