Inside Sundance’s Top-Secret Documentary on Putin Target Alexei Navalny

Vladimir Putin is a tyrant who thinks himself unassailable, so his refusal to even utter the name Alexei Navalny speaks volumes about the profoundly discomfiting effect the opposition leader, presidential candidate and anti-corruption activist has had on Russia’s leader. Referring to Navalny as “that character” and “that person,” Putin’s hatred of the dissident stems from…

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Vladimir Putin is a tyrant who thinks himself unassailable, so his refusal to even utter the name Alexei Navalny speaks volumes about the profoundly discomfiting effect the opposition leader, presidential candidate and anti-corruption activist has had on Russia’s leader. Referring to Navalny as “that character” and “that person,” Putin’s hatred of the dissident stems from the fact that, as one supporter puts it, “he is now the symbol of Russia’s freedom,” and that rage came to a head on August 20, 2020, when during a flight from the Siberian town of Tomsk to Moscow, Navalny fell ill—the victim, it turned out, of poisoning. In no uncertain terms, Putin had tried to kill his rival, and only through sheer luck did his scheme not work out as planned.

Premiering Jan. 25 as a last-second addition to this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Navalny is a bracing document of the assassination attempt on Navalny’s life, as well as his victorious post-recovery effort to unmask those behind it. Director Daniel Roher’s suspenseful portrait is augmented by the participation of Navalny, who both sits down at a bar for a straightforward interview and allows cameras to follow him on his quest for justice. The man revealed here is a courageous idealist who’s unafraid to call Putin a corrupt thief, and convinced that he can lead a revolution against the authoritarian regime that has a stranglehold on his nation. Unfortunately, though, Navalny’s tale is one that currently lacks a happy ending, since Putin’s forces arrested him upon his return to Russia on January 17, 2021, thereby reconfirming Navalny’s own grim point that, contrary to his earlier beliefs, becoming famous has not resulted in increased safety.

As far as fly-on-the-wall documentaries go, Navalny is a thrilling non-fiction ride, and its depiction of Putin as a cruel autocrat who’s willing to achieve his ends by any merciless means necessary is especially timely as he threatens, at this very moment, to invade Ukraine. Roher’s film doesn’t touch upon that ongoing crisis, instead confining itself to Navalny’s search for answers about the malady that so sickened him on his flight to Moscow that his plane had to make an emergency landing in Omsk, where he was rushed to a local hospital and promptly fell into a coma. Footage of Navalny’s wife Yulia struggling to see her husband, and to have him relocated to a European medical facility where his security might be guaranteed, conveys the life-or-death intensity of the moment, which was exacerbated by doctors who initially didn’t want to even admit that Navalny had been poisoned (instead they claimed, not persuasively, that he had a metabolic disorder having to do with low blood sugar levels).

Such disinformation was furthered by Russian state TV commentators who theorized that Navalny’s illness could have been caused by drinking moonshine, taking U.S. anti-depressants, snorting cocaine, or engaging in “sickening” homosexuality and orgies—therefore illustrating the level of discourse fostered by Putin and his lackeys. Nonetheless, everyone knew it was poison, including Christo Grozev, the chief investigator of Netherlands-based journalism outfit Bellingcat, who quickly deduced that Navalny had been dosed with Novichok, a nearly undetectable nerve agent that Putin had previously employed—to more successful ends—in Salisbury, England, in 2018 on former spy Sergei Skripal. In a fascinating interview, Grozev provides a quick primer on his use of the dark web, where just about any electronic data can be bought and sold at a hefty price. Through this venue, he procured and cross-referenced phone records and flight manifestos in order to identify the trio of Federal Security Service (FSB) agents who carried out the hit.

There’s more tension than humor in Navalny, but the latter does materialize when Grozev admits that his wife doesn’t know he’s spent upwards of $5,000 of his own money on dark web data, and then remarks, “She’s not watching this movie now.” Grozev also turns into the audience’s proxy during the film’s centerpiece sequence, acting stunned and elated as Navalny, pretending to be a fellow FSB conspirator, compels a scientist to confess to every detail of the assassination plot, replete with the revelation that the FSB had been formulating the execution for years, and that it had delivered the Novichok poison by applying it to Navalny’s underwear. Caught on video, this admission is about as close to a smoking gun as anyone could have dreamed, proving Putin’s methodical nefariousness. At the same time, it also amusingly illustrates the dimness of some of Putin’s underlings—a stupidity that Navalny and Grozev refer to as “Moscow 4,” after an intelligence bigwig’s particularly moronic password choices.

Navalny, pretending to be a fellow FSB conspirator, compels a scientist to confess to every detail of the assassination plot, replete with the revelation that the FSB had been formulating the execution for years, and that it had delivered the Novichok poison by applying it to Navalny’s underwear.

That Putin’s minion fell for this phone ruse is astounding, but such inanity comes across as a byproduct of Putin’s arrogance, which makes him as dangerous as it does vulnerable. Even amidst Navalny’s accomplishment, Navalny thrums with an undercurrent of genuine jeopardy, such that Navalny himself recognizes—in his to-the-camera Q&A session with Roher—that the director may be prepping this material for a posthumous documentary. Consequently, when a collection of international news agencies break the story about Navalny’s investigation, all as the activist does likewise via TikTok, the celebrations are at once joyous and muted, tempered by the understanding that retaliation is destined to arrive in short order, and in potentially perilous form.

The other shoe dropped when Navalny went back to Russia in January 2021 and, on the basis of trumped-up corruption charges, was immediately apprehended and thrown in jail, where he now faces a potential 20-year sentence. Concluding clips of Navalny in handcuffs and behind bars, flashing peace signs to supporters, loved ones and cameras, imply that he hasn’t given up the fight for freedom, human rights, and justice in his homeland. To its minor detriment, Navalny doesn’t press its subject on the efficacy of this decision; it merely takes his word that it’s a necessary act if he ever hopes to spearhead true change. Still, there’s no denying the bravery, and conviction, that guides his rebellious undertaking, encapsulated by his simple final message to his countrymen: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing. So don’t be inactive.”

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