Astonishing and downright chilling, Navalny plays out like a tightly wound political thriller with tragic results.
This review of the CNN and HBO Max documentary Navalny will contain spoilers.
There have been many great works on dissidents in the past decade. The first that comes to mind is Betty Medsger’s book, The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, a masterpiece investigating a small group of citizens who challenge how a political figure wields their power. More recently, you have the award-winning documentary, more aptly titled, The Dissident. A documentary that covers Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance while covering the ruling Saudi Arabian regime. However, these films cover media and citizens. Navalny is a new CNN and HBO MAX documentary that follows a political rival who challenges the acting Russian president by running against him. If what transpires on the screen was ever written in a fictional film, people will have trouble believing it.
Navalny covers the assassination attempt and what transpired after Russian opposition leader and presidential candidate Alexei Navalny. While on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow, the plane must make an emergency landing when the man becomes ill. Later, a screening found traits of an impossible-to-detect nerve agent in his system, Novichok. After two days in a Russian hospital, his family is given permission to see and transfer him to Germany. He made a recovery, considered miraculous. Why? Simply because no one has been known to survive a Novichok attack. Immediately, Navalny suspects and accuses the Kremlin of the assassination attempt at the bidding of you know who.
While recovering outside Russia, he strategizes his next move while researching who was behind the attempt on his life. With the help of Bulgarian investigative journalist Christo Grozev and Russian investigative journalist Maria Pevchikh, also head of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, delve into the case because Russian officials refuse to do so. Grosev works for Bellingcat, a global investigative news outlet that helps Navalny gather information on his attackers with a sophisticated data mining method. From there, they can produce several Kremlin officials and cross-reference their location during Navalny’s flight.
What happens next is genuinely shocking. An astonishing and downright chilling documentary that plays out like a tightly wound political thriller. That forty-nine-minute marked with that much-talked-about ten-minute sequence will be remembered for decades. As each moment passes from that point, each group action creates greater importance and meaning. At this point, Navalny, a political animal who knows how to utilize technology and social media to his considerable advantage, his confidence grows. Even Grosev comments that he is going to be the next Russian president. As his confidence grows, he continues answering questions in the camera. His beliefs. He talks about planning his next steps and why he is doing so. Still, he knows his time is short. And, perhaps, tied to the consequences of standing tall directly in the face of telling the truth to power.
Daniel Roher’s film builds toward a hero’s welcome, but quickly a sobering reality sets in. The final scene of his documentary film reminds me of the sequence in Steven Spielberg’s film, Bridge of Spies. While highly dramatized and departing from some historical records, that film tells a short story about dissidents against fascist government regimes. Mark Rylance, who plays Russian spy, Rudolph Abel, tells his lawyer how he reminds him of a man who stood up every time he was beaten to the ground. Standing man, he calls him. Let that sink in, and as the final scene fades to black, you will know what I am talking about. Navalny even comments on the importance of keeping questioning, challenging, and exposing those who wield power without oversight.
Stunning and tragic, Roher’s Navalny is the singular modern-day documentary about the power of dissidents and how important it is to question authority. No matter where it leads or may end.
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