At the very least, Daniel Roher’s “Navalny” hinges on one of the most remarkable moments I’ve ever seen in a documentary. It’s just after sunrise on a snow-white morning in December 2020, and the film’s namesake — gregarious Russia of the Future leader and fearless Putin critic Alexei Navalny — sits at the kitchen table of the remote German cabin where he’s been hiding since FSB agents tried and failed to assassinate him with the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok four months earlier. To Navalny’s right, investigative journalist Christo Grozev operates some recording equipment. To his left, his unflappable campaign manager cracks her knuckles to relieve the tension. His wife Yulia and their two teenage children are still asleep upstairs.
With Grozev’s help, Navalny has identified the Kremlin agents who attempted to kill him, and now he’s going to casually call them up and ask why they did it. Nobody expects this to work; it’s little more than a cheap stunt performed for the benefit of Roher’s camera and Navalny’s own stir-crazy amusement, and the first three people who pick up the phone all hang up once they recognize the voice on the other end of the line. In the interest of spicing things up, Navalny decides to prank call number four — a chemist who works in a suspicious government lab where they make “sports drinks.” Adopting the voice of an impatient Putin underling who needs some information for a report, Navalny presses for answers on what went wrong with his own botched assassination. And then, to the profound shock of everyone on both sides of the screen, he gets them.
This is the spy novel moment that Navalny had in mind when he agreed to be the subject of Roher’s film — a film that begins with its smiling Goliath of a star begging the man behind the camera not to make a “boring movie of memory” that looks at him as if he were already dead. On the contrary, he wants to be in the kind of breathlessly suspenseful political thriller that frames him as the Russian Jason Bourne; the kind of popcorn entertainment where audiences fully expect the hero to survive, and never have reason to see him as a martyr in waiting.
It’s the thinking of an impish 44-year-old DILF who plays “Call of Duty” on his phone whenever he gets bored, and also that of an image-savvy celebrity politician who’s weaponized his 30 million social media followers into such a potent force that Putin won’t even say Navalny’s name on TV. Roher’s edge-of-your-seat documentary is ultimately a slick piece of sponsored content unto itself, albeit less by design than through sheer force of will, and viewers will come away from it with only the most superficial understanding of Navalny’s politics. Then again, opposing the Kremlin is such an all-encompassing platform that further nuance isn’t necessary, and it’s hard to accuse a guy of doing something for mere Twitter likes when that “something” is an act of protest that will separate him from his family and see him rot in a Russian prison for an open-ended period of time. Whatever their respective agendas, “Navalny” finds subject and filmmaker alike bound together by the shared belief that authoritarian governments are as scared of their people as their people are of them, and the documentary is galvanized by the spectacle of Putin shitting his pants.
“Navalny” is also held together by the tension between public and private warfare in the modern world. One of the first things that we hear Navalny say into Roher’s camera is that he cultivated his brand with the belief that fame would save him from being murdered, a nearly fatal misjudgment that poses a fascinatingly unanswerable question: Has Putin become so powerful that he no longer needs to cover his tracks, or did he think he could get away with killing Navalny because no one would believe that he was stupid enough to try? Navalny never had a real shot of winning a rigged election, of course, but, uh, it’s safe to assume that a lot of fingers would be pointing at Mar-a-Lago if Ron DeSantis dropped dead during the 2024 Republican primary race. Either way, the attack reflects the scared thinking of a government that’s aggressively trying to move beyond its fear.
For his part, Navalny refuses to hide; even his stay in Germany seems motivated by the need for physical recuperation rather than for personal safety, though Roher’s film is frustratingly oblique about the risks posed to Navalny’s family (their support is clear, their role in the patriarch’s decision-making less so). The opposition leader is actually in the process of starring in his own “nice movie about corruption in Siberia” at the time of his poisoning, and the footage his team captured from the state-controlled hospital where Navalny was sent to die finds his wife Yulia doing an expert job of using the media to their advantage. Even in a coma, Navalny managed to cast himself in the middle of an espionage thriller (a talent that once seemed unique to Bruce Willis).
To its subject’s mild annoyance, “Navalny” downshifts into a slower gear once his body is air-lifted out of Russia and his team sets up their war room in the Black Forest, though self-described “nerd investigator” Grozev makes for an excellent sidekick whose enthusiasm for dredging information from the dark web proves contagious. And information is the name of the game here for both sides — the only difference being that access is Navalny’s greatest advantage, and Putin’s Achilles’ heel. If Roher often struggles to fill the gaps between his film’s remarkable setpieces (footage of Navalny feeding local donkeys and laughing off Kremlin-approved media coverage only goes so far), his film eventually mines a strange power from such throwaway moments.
That remarkable telephone call notwithstanding, the most indelible shot from this doc might come from the scene in which Navalny and his wife fly back to Moscow for his inevitable arrest. The whole world is watching as Navalny’s commercial flight circles above the airport where police are violently scrambling to contain thousands of supporters. Navalny, however, retains every inch of his iron nerve and dry sense of humor; as the plane makes its final descent, we see him holding hands with Yulia as they calmly watch an episode of “Rick and Morty” together. No matter how many dissidents he jails, no matter how many countries he invades, and no matter how many goals he scores against a hockey team that’s terrified of stopping him, Putin will always be trying to hide from the truth of his actions. “Navalny” may not resonate with the same power as something like “The Great Dictator,” but — in its timely 21st century context — this documentary evinces a similar understanding of what power fears the most.
“Navalny” premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. It will air on CNN and be available to stream on HBO Max later this year.