‘Navalny’ review: The documentary moves like a crackerjack thriller.

The smoking gun moment in the sensationally gripping new documentary “Navalny” is something to behold. We are deep in the weeds of the investigation with Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, and Christo Grozev, the Bulgarian journalist investigating the August 2020 poisoning that nearly ended Navalny’s life. By this point in the film, they’ve already amassed considerable evidence that the assassination attempt was ordered by the Kremlin, but that still doesn’t prepare you for the electrifying sequence in which Navalny begins calling out the men who carried out the plot. and confront them, one by one, with what he knows.

The first men hang up immediately. But then Navalny – showing some of the smarts and daring that helped make him the public face of the anti-Putin resistance – tries a different approach with one of them, posing as a Kremlin official demanding answers on reasons for failed poisoning. Much to the shock of Navalny and his colleagues, the man on the other end walks straight into the trap and begins to drop a secret after incriminating a secret, including the means by which the deadly nerve agent Novichok got himself. is introduced into the Navalny system.

It’s a jaw-dropping moment – ​​even the usually unfazed Grozev covers his face in euphoria and disbelief – in a documentary that moves with the speed and tension of a crackerjack thriller. But what gives the scene its authority, its dramatic force too beautiful to be scripted, is its reek of banality and bureaucratic ineptitude. Whatever glamorous fantasies we may still attach to the world of international espionage, here’s the dull reality of the thing: a failed plot led by a dumb schlub smearing toxic slime inside some guy’s boxer shorts.

The targeting of a dissident’s underwear may have been strategic, even if it also seems oddly personal – perhaps even a grudging official acknowledgment of Navalny’s outsized size. cojones. Certainly, “Navalny,” directed with a touch of quicksilver by Daniel Roher (“Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band”), is nothing if not enamored with the death-defying bravery of its subject. In its first part, the film tells how, for several years, this handsome, charismatic lawyer, with his piercing baby blues and his gift for the mob, became the sharpest and most visible thorn in Putin’s side. Gathering followers online and drawing huge crowds to his rallies, Navalny exposed Kremlin corruption, pushed for revolution and sought to challenge Putin for the Russian presidency. We see brief footage of the very many instances of official retaliation against him, as Navalny is arrested, brutalized and splattered in the face with toxic green dye.

Still, Navalny was caught off guard by the events of August 2020, when he fell violently ill on a flight from Tomsk, Siberia, to Moscow. Using a mix of news reports and cellphone footage, Roher navigates the agony and chaos of the poisoning and its immediate aftermath. We see the emergency landing that saved Navalny’s life; the efforts of his fiercely loyal wife, Yulia, to get him out of the Siberian hospital where, she suspected, the true nature of his illness was hidden; and Navalny’s eventual release and transport to a Berlin hospital, where doctors confirmed he had been poisoned with a nerve agent.

The feat of “Navalny,” which arrives this week for a brief theatrical stint (it will premiere later this year on CNN and be made available to stream on HBO Max and CNN+), is to bring this harrowing mystery from almost killing in a clean and captivating mood. and a completely overwhelming focus. And he does this at a time when even a figure of Navalny’s fame and prominence could illuminate – or be overshadowed by – the horrors of Russia’s continued assault on Ukraine. The most recent footage from the film is from January 2021, when Navalny, after several months of convalescence in Germany, returns to Moscow, where he is greeted by huge crowds of supporters and detained by police. It’s a dramatic ending that inevitably leaves out his year of incarceration and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which Navalny condemned and protested behind bars.

In other words, the geopolitical landscape has changed dramatically in the past few months since this sleek, cleverly put together and almost indecently entertaining film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival (where it won two Audience Awards), and by therefore, it may seem timely and outdated, relevant and redundant, disturbing and evasive at the same time. And escapism – even levity – is not unwelcome in this dark context. There’s a fun, tension-busting moment when Navalny, who has just come out of a medically induced coma, discovers he’s been poisoned with Novichok, a chemical weapon that Putin has been linked to in the past. “What the f-?!” he shouts. “That’s so stupid!” »

There are several ways to read this explosion. Is it stupid that Putin goes to the end of the Bond-villain torture (“If you want to kill someone, shoot him, Jesus Christ!” scoffs Navalny), or that he falls back on what is referred to here as his “signature” method, one that could easily be attributed to him? (Western officials have accused the Kremlin of using Novichok to poison former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in 2018; as Navalny, they both survived.) There is an even darker possibility, not acknowledged here but hinted at by more than one commentator since: namely, that Putin expected and even wanted to be involved in the bombing, which would demonstrate his complete impunity and deter other dissidents from following Navalny’s example.

Either way, amid official Russian denials of its involvement in the poisoning, it was the mission of ‘Navalny’ – which Roher began firing during the opposition leader’s German convalescence – to follow the threads of Grozev’s investigation and corroborate his conclusions. The film walks us through the details with sustained economy: the black market acquisition of the manifesto of Navalny’s fateful robbery, tracking the identities and movements of suspects. It also reflects the daunting challenge of investigating a crime committed in a country that controls the dissemination of all evidence and all media. Navalny, of course, has his own formidable media apparatus, and it comes to life as he pushes back the state narrative, coordinating the release of his findings across multiple platforms.

Navalny is an online superstar, in other words, with a natural flair for self-promotion. He is sympathetic, charismatic, a little clumsy; he has a huge TikTok following and enjoys playing “Call of Duty” on his phone. He is a loving husband and father (he and Yulia have two children, including a daughter who speaks fondly of her father’s courage). But Roher is shrewd enough to dig a little below the charming surface, to wonder if he represents something bigger, politically, than himself. He scrupulously asks Navalny about his long-standing flirtations with Russian far-right groups, marching at rallies alongside neo-Nazis and others. Navalny replies with some exasperation that he’s already answered these questions in several interviews, which makes you wonder why he’s not doing a better job of answering them now.

Building a strong anti-Putin coalition, he argues, requires some solidarity even with people you may fundamentally disagree with. If it’s a bit of an escape, “Navalny” nevertheless allows you to see part of the truth. Again and again, Roher cuts shots of ordinary Russian citizens bravely throwing their support for Navalny and raising their voices in protest against authoritarian rule, even though they surely know the risks of speaking out publicly – images that now play like a harbinger of the protests yet to come. In these moments, “Navalny” emotionally transforms from a profile of individual challenge to a story of collective courage.

‘Navalny’

In Russian and English with English subtitles

Note : R, for a language

Operating time: 1 hour 38 minutes

Playing: April 11 and April 12 in general version