Navalny just won the Oscar for Best Documentary. Here is our piece on the film when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in January of 2022.
Navalny, the captivating, crackerjack new documentary from Daniel Roher, tells the appalling but inspiring story of Alexei Navalny, a man with the courage to call out Russian president Vladimir Putin as a thief and worse.
Navalny can’t quite say Putin tried to murder him, but that’s only because, as the doc suggests, the Kremlin failed in an August 2020 attempt to kill him with a nerve agent called Novichok. The poisoning attempt leads to Navalny suddenly moaning in pain in the midst of a commercial flight, which is captured on film. It might have been the climax of a lesser documentary, but this one is just getting started.
Roher seems to have total access to Navalny, and is understandably sympathetic to his subject, while constantly aware that he may be recording his downfall. The film debuted as a surprise screening at the Sundance Film Festival, which Roher described as “a very bittersweet experience.”
“At the time people will be watching this, Alexei Navalny… will have been in prison under very difficult conditions for about one year,” Roher said before the film. “Whilst I am on the cusp of this very exciting milestone in my own career, it is because of his bravery and because of decisions he made in his life. I’m thinking about Alexei today, and I’m hoping when this film is finished you will all be thinking about him as well.”
The film shows how him hospitalized in a Russian hospital that, his wife sharply observes, seems to have more guards than doctors. They eventually escape to Germany, where the film takes on an irresistible Mission: Impossible feel. Navalny becomes aligned with a fearless Bulgarian journalist named Christo Grozev, aka Bellincat, who scours the dark web for phone records that eventually leads them to the men they suspect of poisoning him.
In a stunning moment, Navalny calls one of these men, who admits trying and failing to kill Navalny by dousing his underwear with Novichok. They soon begin a campaign to use this video, and their other evidence against the Kremlin, to badly embarrass Putin’s regime. After this, Navalny has the poison-proof balls to return to Russia, incredibly publicly, knowing that he might never see his wife or daughter again.
Navalny Has a Complex Background
The subject of the film is a complicated, imperfect figure, which Roher acknowledges quickly. He hopes to replace Putin as the president of Russia, and some initially suspected he was something of a false-flag candidate, chosen to mount hollow opposition to Putin and then fall, like one of Putin’s judo opponents. Given the effectiveness of his campaign against Putin and his regime, this seems unlikely.
Roher also acknowledges that early in his political career, Navalny teamed up with extreme right-wingers looking to oust Putin. Roher pointedly notes that there were some “sieg heilers” among them. Navalny responds that the threat posed by Putin is so great that he sometimes needs to ally himself with people he finds distasteful in order to defeat the greater evil.
Time‘s Simon Shuster, who has interviewed him at length, concluded that his agenda “struck me as center-right: he supported gun rights, strong borders, less government spending—nothing more radical than a typical Republican in Texas… Above all, he wanted democratic change.”
There is no tidy, black-and-white way to sum up the extent of Putin’s sneaky kleptocracy, or the best way to achieve democracy in Russia. But Roher shows us a man and a movement braced for a very messy fight.
Main image courtesy of Sundance.
This story was originally published in January 2022, and has been updated.