‘Let’s make a thriller out of this movie,’ says Russian dissident and lawyer Alexei Navalny to camera at the beginning of this ridiculously gripping doc. ‘And if I’m killed, let’s make a boring movie about memory.’
Crusading Canadian director Daniel Roher follows those instructions to the letter with a pulsing thriller that would give one of the early Bourne movies a run for its money. Navalny is a barely believable brew of activism, resistance, poisonings, death squads, exiles and homecomings.
Most of all, it’s a story of courage in the face of ruthless repression and one of those all-too-rare geopolitical stories where the bad guys actually get some comeuppance.
It’s not a spoiler to say Navalny doesn’t get killed, because we meet him as recently as 2021. He’s in exile in Germany and preparing to fly home to Moscow. He can’t say for sure what Vladimir Putin, his nemesis, has in store for him when he gets there but it almost certainly isn’t a ‘welcome back!’ balloon and a big hug.
Unlike Citizen K, Alex Gibney’s 2019 deep dive into the life of Navalny’s fellow dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Roher doesn’t contextualise his subject’s rise to prominence as an hugely popular anti-corruption figure in Russia and a political threat to Putin. This is a documentary that tells its story walking, in keeping with the covert circumstances in which it was made (the film’s existence was a closely guarded secret until its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival).
It’s barely believable brew of activism, poisonings, death squads, exiles and homecomings
What really sets it apart, though, is the charismatic, bulldog-like figure of Navalny himself. The circumstances surrounding his state-sponsored Novichok poisoning are intense enough, but the table-turning investigation he instigates afterwards delivers a must-see gotcha moment. Then he’s back on his phone playing ‘Call of Duty’ again.
There are other players in this story worthy of mention: Navalny’s tough-as-tungsten wife, Yulia; the daughter who spends a chunk of her time steeling herself for her dad’s death; and the Bellingcat journalist who heads into the dark web to make the investigation possible. But it’s Navalny himself who powers it all through his sheer charisma and political chutzpah.
He isn’t flawless, and the film is damning of his realpolitik approach to coalition-building with some scummy far-right politicians, but he’s an inspiring figure for his sheer fearlessness in the face of tryanny. There are some things worth dying for, as this stirring doc makes clear, and Navalny knows that he may well yet have to.
Previewing Apr 12 and out across the UK Apr 15.