Storytellers spent decades populating Cold War dramas with cold-hearted Russian dictators and the shady spies and assassins in their employ only to have Vladimir Putin rise to power and render all those fictionalized archetypes redundant, if not obsolete.
If Tom Clancy or John le Carré fabricated the events depicted in Daniel Roher’s documentary Navalny, you’d think it was too on-the-nose. As it stands, Roher’s unsettling film is at least as sad as it is pulse-pounding; 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union this is what democracy looks like in Russia (all with the backdrop that the United States isn’t doing so spectacularly when it comes to democracy either). It’s like the entertainment industry’s love for remakes and reboots has extended to reviving schlocky conspiracy thrillers as real-life.
Jaw-dropping and tense, though without room for depth.
It’s a burgeoning documentary genre that has included Oscar winners Citizenfour and Icarus, and you know Roher doesn’t mind having Navalny put in that conversation. It’s a genre that I sometimes think prioritizes plot mechanics over the context and depth that documentaries are supposed to offer, but when a film is as tense as Navalny, that becomes a quibble.
More than his politics, which border on irrelevant, Alexei Navalny’s precarious perspective is what makes him fascinating.
The documentary, targeted for an HBO Max release, begins with Roher asking Navalny, “If you are killed, if this does happen, what message do you leave behind to 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. No way. It’s like you’re making a movie for the case of my death.”
It’s unquestionably true that Roher is making a movie for the case of Navalny’s death, so to speak. And how could he not be? The filmmaker, whose previous feature credit was Once Were Brothers about The Band, met with the Russian opposition leader as he was still recovering from an August 2020 poisoning. Roher was in Germany for Navalny’s rehab with wife Yulia and then the incredibly fast turnaround of data journalist Christo Grozev’s investigation into upper-level Russian involvement in the assassination plot, followed by his return to Moscow.
It’s a very small window of time, and despite the all-encompassing title, Roher isn’t interested in giving Navalny the full biographical treatment — nor is Navalny himself interested in offering that sort of overview. This is an incredibly charismatic man with a finely honed sense of his public image, but Roher is also able to capture how prickly he is. Navalny admits to his irritation at some of Roher’s questions both in English to the filmmaker and in Russian to one of his aides in a moment the director captures by just letting the camera run.
This, to me, is probably the documentary’s key saving grace, because unfettered hero-worship directed toward a man who seems to have no issues with including rather scary nationalists as part of his coalition-building shouldn’t be anybody’s goal. Roher doesn’t do that. He tries asking Navalny difficult questions, and weathers his circuitous answers to basics like “How would Russia be different under your presidency?” One can admire Navalny for his cleverness with social media, for his gifts at mobilizing volunteers, for his simply not being Vladimir Putin without engaging in hagiography. Alexei Navalny appears basically to be a politician, first and foremost, but if the alternative is whatever Putin is, it’s easy to find him appealing.
Working with editors Langdon Page and Maya Daisy Hawke and assisted by the propulsive score by Marius de Vries and Matt Robertson, Roher contracts several exceptional set-pieces that could just as easily have involved Jack Ryan or George Smiley in supporting roles. A scene with Navalny calling his suspected poisoners and attempting to improv his way into getting a confession plays out with jaw-dropping suspense. His flight back to Russia, with the prospect of immediate arrest — Roher ignores the trumped-up charges Navalny knew he was facing — is a breath-holding slow burn. Even stuff that Roher wasn’t there to film first-hand, like airplane cell phone footage of a near-death Navalny moaning in agony, gets a tightly constructed presentation.
Without being excessively adulatory, the quiet beats have value as well, like Navalny and wife Yulia’s hike through their German retreat, stopping to feed a miniature pony and a donkey along the way. Flashing out the documentary’s world are supporting players like Grozev, rather hilarious when he admits that his wife doesn’t know how much money he’s spent on black market data and that she won’t watch this documentary, or Navalny’s daughter Dasha, a Stanford undergrad whose reflection on her father’s potential death adds emotion to a film that might otherwise tend toward the methodical.
The story of Alexei Navalny hasn’t ended, but Roher’s access concluded in January 2021. A repressive, media-hostile regime tends to have that effect. That means that Navalny ends with a near-fizzle, almost 10 minutes of news footage and title cards, where you can sense a filmmaker practically holding his breath waiting for a tragic ending. Roher finds a more inspiring alternative, but his film remains a pervasively ominous snapshot of a scary ongoing global moment.