‘Navalny’ Is Riveting, Hopeful, And Horrifying — But It’s Also Terrific And A Must See

Navalney, which premiered Tuesday night at the Sundance Film Festival, is a must-watch just on its own narrative as a film. It’s tense, yet at times very funny. Alexei Navalny, after being poisoned with a nerve agent by, almost certainly, via a direct order from Putin, figures out who actually carried through the order and … well Navalny prank calls them. At least he tries this tactic after the first couple of calls he makes to his would-be murderers ends in hang-ups after simply introducing himself and asking why they wanted to murder him. (To be fair to his almost assassins, I would also probably just hang up.) But on the last call he strikes gold pretending to be an assistant to a government high up and asking why the plan to killed Navalny failed. And, this time, the man on the other end, hilariously, goes into horrifying detail why, he thinks, the plan to kill Navalny didn’t work. (It came down to, it seems, not enough deadly nerve agent was put on the crotch portion of Navalny’s underwear.)

Earlier, I said Navalny works as its own narrative as a movie. And what I mean by that is, even without the educational aspect of learning the story of Alexei Navalny, it works on its own. But that educational aspect is also very important and is why I watched this documentary in the first place. In that, I assume, I’m like most Americans. I know a little about this situation. Alexei Navalny hates Vladimir Putin and wants Putin ousted from power and Navalny represents a true opposition to Putin that is uniting a lot of Russians and, of course, Putin doesn’t like this and wants Navalny out of the picture. But Daniel Roher‘s film fills in the gaps and gets into the nitty-gritty of who Alexei Navalny is – Navalny himself gets annoyed at some of Roher’s questions about Navalny’s appearances at some nationalist rallies around a decade ago; waving them off by explaining he needs the help of every coalition to defeat Putin – and the details of what happened to him when he was poisoned and how he discovered who his killers were and why he decided to just call them up, which all are pretty crazy.

Nalvany also gets annoyed when Roher keeps asking him for “final messages.” Basically, if you are dead or in jail, what do you want to say to your followers? Nalvany keeps scoffing at these questions. Which, sure, makes some sense. But Roher knows the score. And, filmed in the weeks leading up to Nalvany returning from Germany, where he recovered from the poison, back to Moscow, where he was certainly either going to be killed or arrested … yeah it was probably a good idea to ask Nalvany for some final words, no matter how annoying he thought they were.

But Nalvany‘s best attribute is being able to explain why. Again, I think a good number of Americans remember hearing in 2021 about Nalvany’s plan to return to Russia and, at least for me, not being able to wrap my head around it. Why would he do this? Most people in his position would want to get away. He and his family are safe in Germany, why on Earth would he want to go back to Russia to face certain doom? Nalvany, the film, does a great job of creating a sense of why. It’s not really an explanation, it doesn’t just tell us. But it shows us why. It shows us how so many people are inspired by this man and Nalvany knows he can’t help them from Germany. He knows he’s more important dead or in prison than living a safe life in Germany. It’s hard to convey an outlook like that in words and have it sound reasonable. But by the end of the film, it’s hard not to believe he did the right thing, even though it feels so hopeless, but then we see, with how many people are waiting for him at the airport, how his actions bring so many the feeling of hope. Yes, Nalvany is a must see film.

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