Review: A portrait of a Putin opposition leader in ‘Navalny’

Alexei Navalny appears in a scene from the documentary "Navalny." (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)
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AP Film Writer

“Navalny” is so taut and suspenseful you’d think John le Carré had left behind a secret manuscript that’s only just coming to light now.

This spellbinding portrait of a Russian opposition leader following an attempt on his life has all the makings of a Hollywood thriller. It has shadowy operatives, truth-seeking journalists, conspiracy theories, Soviet-era poisons and, at its center, a handsome, altruistic family man risking his life to fight a would-be despot.

But “Navalny” is not fiction. And it’s somehow even more chilling and prescient now than it was just three months ago when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival hours after Russian authorities officially added Alexei Navalny to their registry of terrorists. Thanks to Fathom Events, audiences can see it in theaters starting Tuesday. It’ll be broadcast on CNN and streamed on HBO Max later this year.

For the uninitiated, Alexei Navalny is a media savvy, anti-corruption campaigner in his mid-40s who has for many years been a headache for Russian President Vladimir Putin. He’s released numerous reports about corruption in Russia and the Putin administration and become a popular and rallying figure among like-minded Russians. The media has called him the Kremlin’s fiercest critic. And he is seemingly undaunted by the intimidation and the arrests he’s endured.

The fame, he thought, might even make it more problematic for him to be killed, he tells director Daniel Roher in the documentary.

“Boy, were you wrong,” Roher says off camera.

“Yes, I was wrong,” Navalny says.

Roher was able to sit down with Navalny during his brief stay in Berlin in 2020 and early 2021, while recovering from being poisoned and seeking the truth behind the unsuccessful murder attempt.

In August 2020, he’d fallen violently ill on flight from Siberia to Moscow. The pilot staged an emergency landing in Omsk where he was immediately hospitalized. His wife and supporters helped make the case for him to be treated elsewhere and he was soon transported to Berlin for care. After emerging from a coma, the German government determined that he’d been poisoned by a lethal, Soviet-era nerve agent. The Kremlin denied the allegation.

Though eager to get back to Russia (Navalny says at the outset that he’s not in Berlin by choice), it’s there that he is able to team up with investigative journalists Christo Grozev and Maria Pevchikh, who help track down his suspected poisoners. In one jaw-dropping scene, Navalny calls the suspects one by one on speakerphone. It’s a testament to Roher and his editors just how exciting this is on screen. And it all culminates with Navalny’s January 2021 flight back to Russia where he knows that he will be immediately arrested and imprisoned.

The film captures these episodes and this unbelievable saga extraordinarily well. Roher maintains a delicate balance of amplifying Navalny’s story, including moving testimonies from his wife and daughter, while also resisting full hero worship. Navalny is also a politician, after all, and Roehr does not hold back in interrogating what he stands for outside of his opposition to Putin.

Blame history, but “Navalny” feels somehow unfinished despite many, many title cards and newsreels that precede the credits. With everything that has transpired in the past few months with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, perhaps its biggest flaw is that it has an ending at all.