In the introduction to his new documentary Navalny, director Daniel Roher quickly sets the mood by lamenting the fact that his success comes at the expense of one man’s sacrifice. That man is the titular Alexei Navalny, a fierce political opponent to the draconian Russian President Vladmir Putin. As the film details Navalny’s efforts to combat the ruling regime’s oppressive power, its last-minute addition to a virtual festival feels fitting for a work that highlights the power of technology and the element of surprise in fostering change. But as Roher also demonstrates with his incisive filmmaking, fighting against corruption can come at a high cost.
Indeed, Roher further acknowledges Navalny’s risky undertaking in the film’s opening scenes, with an interview that frankly requests a departing message in the event of his death. Though Navalny humorously brushes it off, the pessimism gradually proves to be valid, as we learn of the downright medieval tactics employed to silence him. Namely, a poisoning attempt during a flight to Moscow in August 2020. As Navalny recovers, his conviction is unbroken, however, prompting an even stronger commitment to exposing the depravity of the Russian government.
That mission to sound the alarm on Russian corruption fuels the investigation that forms the basis for Navalny. Captured intimately by Roher, it unfolds at a breakneck pace, as we observe Navalny assembling a team to help him uncover the truth behind his poisoning. Throughout this process Roher displays the regime’s far-reaching influence, with excerpts from propagandist national television and the denials of hospital staff.
But with a data sleuth at his disposal, his affinity for social media and sheer ingenuity, Navalny retaliates with a boldness that is jaw-dropping to watch in real time. Instantly, it commands our respect. And we therefore root for him all the way.
While his heroic actions are clear, the film is less successful as an exploration of Navalny as a man and his platform as a politician. Admittedly, Roher does keep his supportive wife and children in the picture, including several lighthearted domestic scenes. But we hardly get a sense of Russia’s political and socioeconomic realities outside of Navalny’s broad denouncements of the state’s corruption and Putin’s obvious knack for suppressing his dissenters. The most revealing fact in this regard is arguably the moral compromises Navalny justifies as being necessary to establish an anti-Putin coalition.
Of course, not every documentary needs to be strictly educational. In fact, what makes Navalny so effective is that it plays like a gripping procedural. Indeed, there’s an intuitive thrill to seeing the familiar trope of the convoluted evidence board used to solve the case. Likewise, one particular overhead shot of Navalny jogging through the snow conveys the feeling of a soldier preparing for battle.
Navalny’s ultimate fate reminds us that this is no triumphant work of fiction however. And it resounds with the truth that the ideological battle he championed is far from won. At once disheartening and inspiring, Navalny is thus a bracing reflection of Russian society and the fraught state of modern democracy at large.