Navalny review – shocking documentary of a Russian poisoning

Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader whose arrest in January 2021 inspired the country’s biggest protests in years, is a man accustomed to cameras. Tall, handsome, sandy-haired, with an expressively hangdog face, he’s a pro at seeming both disarming and indomitable while being filmed, which is often – in news anchor style for his popular weekly Youtube series investigating Kremlin corruption; at rallies where he leads crowds in a “Putin! Thief!” call and response; on the plane from Germany back home to Moscow, surrounded by media as he prepares to confront the government that tried to poison him in 2020. Besieged by smartphone cameras, Navalny offers calm statements while storing his luggage in overhead bins. “As usual”, he says, “our government can be characterized as afraid.”

Navalny, a 98-minute documentary from Canadian director Daniel Roher, details in cogent, stressful, riveting fashion just how scared the Kremlin is of Navalny, arguably the biggest threat to Vladimir Putin’s power at home. The bulk of the film, produced by CNN Films and HBO Max with a surprise Sundance premiere this week, is embedded with Navalny and his close team in their Black Forest hideout during the second half of 2020, as they unravel the assassination plot against him and prepare to go public with explosive findings.

Those findings are indeed shocking, in both the effort put forth by a team of Kremlin and the sheer stupidity with which they went about capping a years-long plot to kill Navalny. (I am obligated to write that the Russian government denies involvement.) Christo Grozev, a Bulgarian investigative journalist from the group Bellingcat, and Maria Pevchikh, the head investigator for Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, uncover a plot pulled straight from the movies (there’s even symbolic pinned photos on a map webbed with red yarn, which Roher films tenderly): doughy, dopey agents who followed Navalny for three years and poisoned him on a filming trip to Siberia with the nerve agent novichok, a poison which essentially shuts down the body and then dissipates, making death appear to be from natural causes. (novichok gained notoriety in 2018, when two Russian intelligence officers poisoned former GRU officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in exile in Salisbury, England; both survived, and the incident caused an international firestorm.)

Some allege that novichok is Putin’s preferred assassination method, equivalent to “leaving his signature on the crime scene”, says Navalny’s chief of staff in a sit-down interview. The brazenness of the plot is so galling it’s almost brilliant – “even reasonable people are like what? Come on, poison?” Navalny tells Roher in his one interview before he returns to Russia. (Navalny had been kept in a Russian hospital against his wife, Yulia’s wishes immediately following the poisoning, then transferred to a hospital in Germany, where he recuperated for months).

The film features several one-on-ones with Navalny’s inner circle, including Grozev, Pevchikh, Yulia (steely, undaunted, enjoys chess), and his 19-year-old, American-accented daughter Daria, a university student in California. These sit-downs provide some personal color to the more procedural scenes of a celebrity dissident at work, but don’t include anything we can’t infer from observing the war room, so to speak. The comparison to a Hollywood plot is apt; one scene in which Navalny prank calls his would-be assassins and tricks one to reveal the details of the plot – how they laced his blue underwear with poison, how they cleaned up evidence – left my jaw on the floor.

This is not new information. The revelations here, including the prank call, have been well-publicized by global media and by Navalny himself since December 2020 (a natural handler of social media, Navalny is very cognizant of his views and likes on YouTube and even TikTok, one of the more intriguing characteristics Roher manages to capture). Depending on your awareness of international politics – mine is admittedly low – you may already know the whole story. If you do, I would imagine Navalny offers swift and damning synthesis while skirting some thornier context – Navalny’s political history as a Russian nationalist, for example, which merits a question from Roher but left me with many more.

If you’re coming in with a blank slate, then Navalny is a feast of evermore unbelievable details and a window into a movement against a state of increasingly boldfaced, demeaning lies. It’s a story that ends in midseason – following his celebrated return to Russia in January 2021, Navalny was arrested and remains in a penal colony 60 miles east of Moscow. But given the scenes of jubilance that greeted his survival and return, and the confidence with which Navalny speaks to Roher here, the film offers hope for a brighter, freer future in Russia amid the ongoing shock of state cruelty.

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