Review: ‘Navalny’ gives a brave Russian dissident his taut, suspenseful close-up

Alexei Navalny in the documentary "Navalny."
(Sundance Institute)

The smoking gun moment in the sensationally gripping new documentary “Navalny” is something to see. We are deep in the investigative weeds with Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, and Christo Grozev, the Bulgarian journalist investigating the August 2020 poisoning that nearly ended Navalny’s life. By this point in the film, they’ve already amassed considerable evidence that the assassination attempt was ordered by the Kremlin, but that still doesn’t prepare you for the electrifying sequence in which Navalny starts calling up the men who executed the plot and confronting them, one by one, with what he knows.

The first few men immediately hang up. But then Navalny — showing some of the smarts and daring that helped make him the public face of anti-Putin resistance — tries a different tack with one of them, pretending to be a Kremlin functionary demanding answers as to why the poisoning failed. To the shock of Navalny and his colleagues, the man on the other end steps right into the trap and begins dropping secret after incriminating secret, including the means by which the deadly nerve agent Novichok made its way into Navalny’s system.

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It’s a jaw-dropping moment — even the generally unflappable Grozev covers his face in exhilaration and disbelief — in a documentary that moves with the swiftness and tension of a crackerjack thriller. But what gives the scene its authority, its too-good-to-be-scripted dramatic force, is its undertow of bureaucratic banality and ineptitude. Whatever glamorous fantasies we may still attach to the world of international espionage, here is the drab reality of the thing: a bungled plot carried out by some dumb schlub smearing toxic ooze inside a guy’s boxer shorts.


The targeting of a dissident’s underpants may have been strategic, though it also feels weirdly personal — maybe even a grudging official acknowledgment of Navalny’s outsized cojones. Certainly “Navalny,” directed with a quicksilver touch by Daniel Roher (“Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band”), is nothing if not enamored of its subject’s death-defying bravery. In its opening stretch, the film chronicles how over several years this handsome, charismatic lawyer, with his piercing baby blues and gift for rabble-rousing, became the sharpest, most visible thorn in Putin’s side. Amassing followers online and drawing huge crowds at his rallies, Navalny called out the Kremlin’s corruption, pushed for revolution and sought to challenge Putin for the Russian presidency. We see brief footage of the many, many instances of official retaliation against him, as Navalny is arrested, roughed up and splashed in the face with toxic green dye.

Even still, Navalny was caught off guard by the events of August 2020, when he fell violently ill during a flight from Tomsk, Siberia, to Moscow. Using a mix of news coverage and cell phone footage, Roher cycles through the gut-clutching agony and chaos of the poisoning and its immediate aftermath. We see the emergency landing that saved Navalny’s life; the efforts by his fiercely loyal wife, Yulia, to spring him from the Siberian hospital where, she suspected, the true nature of his illness was being concealed; and Navalny’s eventual release and transport to a hospital in Berlin, where doctors confirmed that he had been poisoned with a nerve agent.

The achievement of “Navalny,” arriving this week for a brief theatrical stint (it will be broadcast later this year on CNN and made available for streaming on HBO Max and CNN+), is to bring this harrowing almost-murder mystery into sharp, engrossing and thoroughly damning focus. And it accomplishes this at a moment when even a figure of Navalny’s fame and significance might illuminate — or be overshadowed by — the horrors of Russia’s ongoing assault on Ukraine. The movie’s most recent footage is from January 2021, when Navalny, after several months recuperating in Germany, returns to Moscow, where he is greeted by an enormous crowd of supporters and detained by police. It’s a dramatic finish that inevitably leaves out his subsequent year-plus of incarceration and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which Navalny has condemned and protested from behind bars.

In other words, the geopolitical landscape has changed dramatically in the last few months since this sleek, smartly assembled and almost indecently entertaining movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival (where it won two audience awards), and as a result, it can feel timely and outdated, relevant and redundant, disturbing and escapist all at once. And escapism — even levity — is hardly unwelcome in this grim context. There’s a funny, tension-breaking moment when Navalny, having just emerged from a medically induced coma, finds out that he was poisoned with Novichok, a chemical weapon to which Putin has been linked in the past. “What the f—?!” he yells. “That’s so stupid!”

There are a couple of ways to read that outburst. Is it stupid that Putin would go to such tortured Bond-villain lengths (“If you want to kill someone, just shoot him, Jesus Christ!” Navalny scoffs), or that he would fall back on what’s referred to here as his “signature” method, one that could be readily traced back to him? (Western officials have accused the Kremlin of using Novichok to poison the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in 2018; like Navalny, they both survived.) There’s a still grimmer possibility, unacknowledged here but floated by more than one commentator since: namely, that Putin wholly expected and even wanted to be implicated in the attack, which would demonstrate his utter impunity and dissuade other dissidents from following Navalny’s example.

Whatever the case, amid Russia’s official denials of involvement in the poisoning, it’s the mission of “Navalny” — which Roher began shooting during the opposition leader’s German convalescence — to follow the threads of Grozev’s investigation and corroborate his findings. The movie steers us through the details with brisk economy: the black-market acquisition of the manifest from Navalny’s fateful flight, the tracking of suspects’ identities and movements. It also conveys the daunting challenge of investigating a crime committed in a country that controls the dissemination of all evidence and media. Navalny, of course, has his own formidable media apparatus, and he surges to life as he pushes back against the state’s narrative, coordinating the release of his findings across multiple platforms.


Navalny is an online superstar, in other words, with a natural flair for self-promotion. He’s likable, charismatic, a little goofy; he has a huge TikTok following and likes to play “Call of Duty” on his phone. He’s a loving husband and father (he and Yulia have two children, including a daughter who speaks movingly about her dad’s courage). But Roher is shrewd enough to dig a little beneath the charming surface, to wonder whether he stands for something larger, politically, than himself. He scrupulously interrogates Navalny about his long-ago flirtations with Russian far-right groups, marching at rallies alongside neo-Nazis and the like. Navalny replies with some exasperation that he’s answered these questions in multiple interviews before, which does make you wonder why he doesn’t do a better job of answering them now.

Building a strong anti-Putin coalition, his argument goes, requires a measure of solidarity even with people with whom one may fundamentally disagree. If that’s a bit of a cop-out, “Navalny” nonetheless gets you to see some of the truth in it. Again and again, Roher cuts to shots of ordinary Russian citizens bravely lending their support to Navalny and raising their voices in protest of an authoritarian regime, even as they surely know the risks of publicly speaking out — images that now play like a harbinger of the protests still to come. In these moments, “Navalny” movingly transforms from a profile of individual defiance into a story of collective courage.


In Russian and English with English subtitles

Rated: R, for some language

Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes

Playing: April 11 and April 12 in general release