‘Navalny’ Review: Speaking Truth to Power in a Corrupt System

“Navalny” had its premiere at the virtual Sundance Film Festival in January, before Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian president, started the war in Ukraine in February, and before the film’s subject, Aleksei A. Navalny, the imprisoned opposition leader, received an additional nine-year sentence in March. The case against him has been seen internationally as a Kremlin effort to lock up a prominent Putin critic.

Even with those latest grim developments, this documentary, directed by the Canadian filmmaker Daniel Roher (“Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band”), plays like a crowd-pleaser, a profile of a politician with the unflagging courage to swim against a rising totalitarian tide. It helps that Navalny has a movie star’s charisma and wit. In the first moments, Navalny implores Roher to make the film a thriller. If he’s killed, Navalny explains, then he has permission to make a boring memorial.

In what has already become one of the most discussed scenes, Navalny, flanked by Maria Pevchikh (who leads the investigative arm of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, Navalny’s organization) and Christo Grozev (from the investigative group Bellingcat), places phone calls to men he suspects were involved in the August 2020 poisoning that nearly killed him. One of the men who picks up, apparently buying Navalny’s impersonation of an official, spills the beans in stupefying detail.

Navalny released a longer version of the rambling conversation, which lasted a purported 49 minutes, in December 2020. Roher, exercising a journalist’s prerogative to trim for space, has condensed this call to about six minutes of highlights (although he has not drawn attention to this, and a close comparison of the editing suggests the movie has tightened not just for time but for drama). Navalny holds up the admissions as an example of a phenomenon he calls “Moscow4,” named for an easily guessable password. It’s when stupidity undermines the system.

Beyond the coup of witnessing that phone call, Roher has assembled a tense and absorbing look at Navalny and his inner circle. Pevchikh, who has an executive-producer credit, and Grozev, who sleuths out information in shady corners of the web with amazing ease, would make for fascinating subjects of their own documentaries. (Roher had in fact met Grozev for another project, and Grozev led him to Navalny.)

Roher also makes efforts to present Navalny as an everyday guy. He films the politician and his wife, Yulia Navalnaya, feeding farm animals in Germany, where Navalny convalesced after being poisoned, and having a discussion about whether it’s OK to grab an apple off a tree there. Navalny appears to be more adept at TikTok than his college-age daughter.

As Roher acknowledged at a recent screening of his film in New York, Navalny knows how to play to the camera. Occasionally — as when Pevchikh asks Navalny if Roher’s questions are bothering him — the documentary finds ways to acknowledge that he is image conscious. Roher clearly reveres Navalny, and it’s possible the only tough question we see is an often-asked one about whether Navalny was wrong to appear at a demonstration of extreme-right nationalists in 2011.

But mostly the movie is, as Navalny ordered, a thriller, culminating with a suspenseful recap of Navalny’s post-recovery return to Russia in January 2021, when his plane was diverted from the airport where his supporters had gathered. He was arrested shortly after landing. And in a film full of global intrigue, a quiet exchange stands out. After Navalny has been led away, a Covid compliance officer sifts through papers and allows Navalnaya to pass. “Thank you,” he says, “and your husband.”

Rated R. The words Navalny used when informed that he’d been poisoned. In Russian and English, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 38 minutes. Watch on CNN platforms and HBO Max.

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