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► Navalny is in UK cinemas now and is available on demand.
Daniel Roher’s Navalny puts its cards on the table right away about the kind of movie we’re about to watch. In a sit-down interview, Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader with the golden-boy looks, waves off the interviewer’s initial line of questioning as sounding too much like fodder for a memorial. Instead, he says, Roher should make this a thriller. Roher’s expertly paced documentary (edited by Maya Hawke and Langdon Page) proceeds to do just that, conveying the mortal danger and daring subterfuge in Navalny’s campaign to expose the corruption and murderous abuses of Russia’s leaders. The telegenic Navalny makes a readymade hero for the screen, a youthful and often sunny contrast to grim-faced predecessors in Russian resistance.
Roher hitches the film to three main recent events in Navalny’s recent career, applying a gimlet eye to filling in background. Tellingly, the film can assume rapid recognition of Navalny’s fight for political freedoms and free elections in Russia, with Putin looming over all as spymaster autocrat. (The persecution has continued since the film’s timeline: in March, Navalny, who was already in jail, was sentenced to nine years in a remote, high-security prison on new charges of embezzlement.). That lets the film merely sketch in Navalny’s fleet-footed operation before diving into the still shocking events of his poisoning with the nerve agent novichok, and the subsequent hospitalisation that doubled as detainment. This is a film (and Russia is a country) where an earlier assault on Navalny – the street-side dumping of a toxic green chemical onto his face – can pass by in a blink, mere appetiser to more brutality.
Navalny is nothing if not efficient in its dramatics. Roher introduces a member of an online investigation firm, Bellingcat, a self-proclaimed “Bulgarian nerd” who neatly serves as savvy narrator for the intrigue to follow. Then comes the second thriller sequence, the movie’s centerpiece, Navalny’s own covert-op-by-phone. Impersonating the assistant to a senior Russian official, he tricks an FSB agent into detailing their assassination attempt on him: the what (novichok in his underwear’s inseams), the how (death during the plane flight, away from aid), the cover-up (local police and hospital doctors assist). As on a prank show, we watch along in “real time” as Navalny susses out the goods over the phone, while the Bellingcat rep and Navalny’s media maven gawp in disbelief and admiration.
It’s a jaw-dropping moment on several levels, both because of Navalny’s high-wire technique and because of the unheard-of spectacle of any government official admitting such murderous espionage. (The man sounds like a murmuring bureaucrat seemingly aware of the punishment to come.) It also must be said that this scene had already been seen by around 30 million viewers before Navalny parachuted into this year’s Sundance film festival as a secret premiere. Mastery of social media, after all, is a cornerstone of Navalny’s métier – which the film often emphasises over other political action, showing him counting followers and even lip-synching a meme to the 1996 hit “How Bizarre.”
Roher’s deployment of the call-ambush is still seamless, but the moment – and the high-stakes tradecraft – brought to mind the feat of Citizenfour (2014), Laura Poitras’s heartbeat-to-heartbeat chronicle of Edward Snowden’s exposé whilst in hiding in a Hong Kong hotel room. (Poitras’s title is echoed in the Navalny team’s nickname for Russian intelligence gaffes: “Moscow4.”) Navalny has its own ticking clock: early on, recovering in Germany from the poisoning, he vows to return home. That trip constitutes the final part of the thriller, as he takes a plane to Moscow filled with camera-wielding journalists. His supporters at the airport are detained by police (but kept, as throughout, somewhat anonymous); his own detention is a grim certainty. Throughout the film, Navalny’s iron-nerved wife, Yulia, is evidently vital to the whole endeavour, giving play-by-play in interviews, and being a player herself in the ongoing handheld-shot dramas.
To the end, Navalny radiates a buoyant mood that purposefully rejects the fear which is the regime’s fuel. (His personality makes the film’s insipid “uplifting” score feel almost trivialising.) But despite Navalny’s advice to make a thriller, there’s still something uneasy in structuring the movie around the suspense of the Kremlin’s attempts to detain or murder him more than his political career and activity (where his early affiliation with a group allied with an extreme right-wing organisation becomes the most memorable mention).
This lack of awareness is a strange blind spot for a film that dwells on the duel of perceptions between Navalny’s actions and Putin’s propaganda machine (vividly at work now spinning its Ukraine aggression). Navalny’s daring and courage inspire, but is it perhaps strange to spend most of the movie dramatising his suppression? As the credits drop, the triumphant music is an odd fit for a man imprisoned in a labour camp, he and his supporters declared terrorists, popular protests quashed. One hopes the film is not a memorial after all.