Documentary Releases: Navalny (2022) - Reviewed

Courtesy of WarnerMedia
While the world continues to watch the events unfolding in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, Warner Brothers, CNN, HBO Max and young documentary filmmaker Daniel Roher have reeled the clock back to roughly around August 20th, 2020 when Russian opposition leader and presidential candidate Alexey Navalny was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent, nearly killing him on his flight from Tomsk to Moscow before being put into a coma and transferred to a hospital in Berlin, Germany where he recovered.  While recovering, with the help of Bulgarian investigative journalist Christo Grosev, Navalny proceeded to track down and publicly identify his FSB assailants before making the brave decision to return to Russia where he faced immediate arrest and imprisonment to this day.

Made largely in secret and assembled urgently, announced just days before his arrest on January 17th, 2021 and in limited theatrical release via Fathom Events impending a CNN and eventual streaming release, Navalny though an unfinished story still unfolding is a remarkably engaging and entertaining bilingual documentary film that’s at once a self-portrait of the titular activist as well as a paean to the courage to stand up and make a difference even if the likely outcome won’t effect change.  Mostly it is a David vs. Goliath story of one Russian figure, controversial though he may be in areas the film touches on, who made an unthinkable personal crusade against current Russian president Vladimir Putin which Navalny pins the poisoning blame on.

Intercut with videos shot by the crew as well as archival phone videos captured during the flight, at the hospital during his recovery and again at the airport during his arrest, the film is an amalgam of preexisting pieces and newly shot-for-the-doc sequences which exhibit a notable jump in picture and sound quality.  Jumping freely between sources, the film continues to circle back to Navalny, who tells much of his story in English at a barstool with a glass of Vodka on hand.  The experience of watching Navalny while intended to make his story and struggle known has the unintended side effect of being akin to stand up comedy with Navalny’s wry sense of humor constantly making cracks about his predicament and the threat he poses to the regime.
Shot handsomely by Niki Waltl and scored by two composers Marius de Vries and Matt Robertson, Navalny was originally intended to just be an investigation of Grosev’s findings including prank calls which got FSB agents to cough up details about Navalny’s poisoning, the subsequent arrest of Navalny captured by the filmmakers transformed the work into something else entirely.  Whether or not the film has the impact of freeing Navalny from imprisonment remains to be seen but what is here is one of the most interesting and timely documentary films to get a theatrical release this year. 

For director Daniel Roher whose previous documentary chronicled Robbie Robertson and The Band with Once Were Brothers, Navalny is like a hot potato dropped into his lap that’s both immediate and has the capacity to burn you.  Most who have been following the headlines won’t get any new information they don’t already know about but even then Navalny humanizes it’s subject, touching briefly on the bad while mostly highlighting the good and in the end vying for hopeful change for a better life.  By the end of it, irrespective of where you stand politically and personally, you feel like you’ve met this man firsthand in a good firm handshake.

--Andrew Kotwicki