Storytellers have spent decades populating Cold War dramas with cold-hearted Russian dictators and the sleazy spies and assassins in their service to bring Vladimir Putin to power and render all those fictional archetypes redundant, even obsolete.
If Tom Clancy or John le Carré invented the events recounted in Daniel Roher’s documentary Navalny, you’d think that was too much on the nose. As it stands, Roher’s unsettling film is at least as sad as it is thrilling; 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, here’s what democracy looks like in Russia (all against the backdrop that the United States isn’t doing so spectacularly when it comes to democracy either). It’s as if the entertainment industry’s love of remakes and reboots has extended to reviving schlocky conspiracy thrillers in real life.
Breathtaking and tense, but with no room for depth.
It’s a burgeoning documentary genre that has included Oscar winners Citizenfour and Icarusand you know Roher doesn’t mind having Navalny put in this conversation. It’s a genre that I think sometimes prioritizes plot mechanics over the context and depth that documentaries are supposed to provide, but when a film is as tense as Navalnyit becomes a quibble.
More than his politics, which border on insignificance, Alexei Navalny’s precarious perspective is what makes him fascinating.
The documentary, targeted for release on HBO Max, begins with Roher asking Navalny, “If you are killed, if this happens, what message are you leaving for the Russian people?
Navalny squirms in amusement and replies, with English that ranges from near-perfect to spotty depending on the moment, “Oh come on, Daniel. Definitely not. It’s like you’re making a movie about the case of my death.
It’s indisputable that Roher is making a film about the case of Navalny’s death, so to speak. And how could it not be? The filmmaker, whose previous feature credit was Once upon a time brothers about The Band, met the Russian opposition leader while still recovering from an August 2020 poisoning. Roher was in Germany for Navalny’s rehab with his wife Yulia, then the incredibly turnaround fast-track of data journalist Christo Grozev’s investigation into high-level Russian involvement in the assassination plot, followed by his return to Moscow.
It’s a very small window of time, and despite the overall title, Roher isn’t interested in giving Navalny the full biographical treatment — and Navalny himself isn’t interested in offering that kind of insight. He’s an incredibly charismatic man with a keen sense of his public image, but Roher is also able to capture just how prickly he is. Navalny admits his irritation at some of Roher’s questions both in English to the filmmaker and in Russian to one of his assistants in a moment the director captures by simply letting the camera roll.
This, to me, is probably the documentary’s key saving grace, as the absolute hero worship directed at a man who seems to have no problem including some rather creepy nationalists as part of his coalition building should only be the person goal. Roher doesn’t do that. He tries to ask tough questions of Navalny and resists his devious answers to basic notions such as “How would Russia be different under your presidency?” We can admire Navalny for his intelligence with social media, for his gifts in mobilizing volunteers, for not being simply Vladimir Putin without engaging in hagiography. Alexei Navalny essentially seems like a politician first and foremost, but if the alternative is what Putin is, it’s easy to find him appealing.
Working with editors Langdon Page and Maya Daisy Hawke and aided by the propelling score of Marius de Vries and Matt Robertson, Roher contracts several standout sets that might as well have involved Jack Ryan or George Smiley in supporting roles. A scene with Navalny calling out his suspected poisoners and trying to better his way to getting a confession unfolds with jaw-dropping suspense. His flight back to Russia, with the prospect of immediate arrest — Roher ignores the bogus charges Navalny knew he was facing — is a breathtaking slow burn. Even things that Roher wasn’t there to film first-hand, like airplane cellphone footage of a near-death Navalny moaning in agony, get a well-constructed presentation.
Without being overly flattering, the quiet beats also have value, like Navalny and his wife Yulia’s trek through their German retreat, stopping to feed a miniature pony and a donkey along the way. Flashing the documentary world backs players like Grozev, rather hilarious when he admits his wife doesn’t know how much money he spent on black market data and she won’t watch this documentary, or Navalny’s daughter , Dasha, a Stanford undergraduate whose reflection on the potential death of her father adds emotion to a film that might otherwise tend towards the methodical.
Alexei Navalny’s story isn’t over, but Roher’s stint ended in January 2021. A repressive, media-unfriendly regime tends to have that effect. This means that Navalny ends with a near fizzle, nearly 10 minutes of news footage and title cards, where you can feel a filmmaker practically holding his breath waiting for a tragic end. Roher finds a more inspirational alternative, but his film remains a pervasive snapshot of a frightening global moment in progress.