Daniel Roher‘s Navalny (2022), a subpar doc on a fascinating topic, unfolds in tedium as missed opportunity for creating compelling testimony about an authentically dire situation. Something in the way the entire story of Vladimir Putin’s nemesis (and Western darling) Alexei Navalny had been framed sadly did not not jell well for me.
As much of a social media wizard as he is a politician, it makes for uncomfortable viewing that the presently imprisoned Russian lawyer, opposition leader, and anti-corruption activist is also an avid TikToker, often seen compulsively following viewing counts, with the glee of a teenage influencer. Helicopter shots of him running through snow, after he was poisoned in what would be characterised by Western media as an assassination attempt, are interlaced with inspirational music, made even more glossy by the refined fashion presence of a poker-faced Yulia Navalnaya, and their camera-ready PR team. All of them just a bit too sleek, too media conscious, too optics-aware, to come off (at least in this doc, and for my money) as credibly stressed and suffering under what is surely incredible pressure of being hunted by one of the most notoriously pervasive secret agencies on the planet. Formerly known as the KGB.
Watching this emphasis on impeccable style, generic lib talking points, and photogenic chit-chat was certainly counter-productive to my previous strong sympathies, as I began to wonder if this was the same person who courageously, almost single-handedly, took on the Russian security state, calling out system corruption, challenging the most powerful man in a country that is also a nuclear super-power for the presidential seat i.e. its highest office.
It couldn’t be that Navalny, he seemed at moments like such a lightweight.
There were a few (sparse) elements of proper drama, as was the nail-biting scene with Navalny cold calling his (alleged) would-be assassins, taping a complete confession of one of them in what was, essentially — a prank call. There are also bits of (unintentional) comic relief — as when an associate of the politician was apparently scanning the Bellingcat investigative journalist Christo Grozev for potential CIA or MI6 associations, and then only after a day of deliberation gave him an all clear.
Such high stakes never seemed so low.
Navalny, formerly of nationalist sentiment, before becoming a free-speech liberal hero, is given softball interview treatment, throughout, despite the docs claims to the contrary. In the one half-hearted attempt at probing the crafted veneer, the director asks Navalny how he could march together with “the sieg-heilers”? In itself, an astonishingly phrased question, indicating a lack of knowledge in differentiating between Nazis and Russian nationalists, a sort of uninformed leftie Twitter misnomer that would, in its alt-right version, for example, equate anarchism and communism as being the exact same thing.
Navalny, unfazed, replies that uniting with all anti-Putin forces would be a way to topple him. Tellingly, he also remarks, all opinions would be allowed in the Russia he envisions.
Finally, when the entire visually inspirational house of cards crashes with the reality of Navalny’s arrest at Moscow Sheremetyevo airport, in January 2021 (for violations of his probation period following a conviction for embezzlement), the news scenes of civil disobedience feature as the only authentic and powerful moment in the entire story. This is inevitable. The fly-on-the wall footage might have been well-intentioned, but was also carefully coordinated by the Navalny team. The riots were raw and real. A gut-punch.
The end scene of Navalny, however, is truly tragic and haunting. The man who only a few moths ago was both free and enthusiastic about his odds at beating Goliath in this massively unequal battle was now behind bars, a pale ghostly presence, following a hunger-strike.
Despite Navalny’s (most likely correct) assessment that the Russian state security system was both old and outdated, it turned out to be no less dangerous.
It is a great pity that Navalny was framed and directed as a procedural political campaign documentary, rather than allowing it to become a bold probe into the difficult and dangerous world of Russian politics, with Navalny at its oppositional centre. The doc’s winning of the Academy Award this year could have only been achieved in extremely politicised and polarised times such as these. And before anyone starts with the “Putin likes this review” wisecracks, please consider what a Laura Poitras, Joshua Oppenheimer, or even someone like Alex Gibney would have done with this material, removing themselves from the promotional, sentimental aspect of it — with a steady eye for detail and a sober investigative approach, focusing on revealing the unpolished mechanics behind Navalny’s drive to bring about societal change and institutional justice in a county so tightly run, as is Russia — and against such impossible odds.
Think how ground-breaking that would have been, and how eye-opening.
Author: ©Milana Vujkov