In the HBO Max and CNN Films original documentary “Nalvany,” director Daniel Roher investigates the attempted assasination of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. The film — which premiered at the January 2022 Sundance Film Festival — focuses on the issues of democratic reform, information warfare and spreading the truth. Russia’s current war with Ukraine and complex political relations with other countries make this documentary a critical and timely watch.
Throughout the documentary, Roher shines a light on the abuses of power perpetrated by Putin’s authoritarian regime and the consequences these abuses have for ordinary citizens. Roher began production after Navalny’s hospitalization following the attempt on his life in 2020. A mix of interviews, news broadcasts and video footage document Navalny’s work opposing the Kremlin. The film also effectively portrays how the Russian populace responded to Navalny’s arrests and the assassination attempt with widespread protests.
Interviews with Navalny and his family initiate political discussions and explain Navalny’s platform. Navalny speaks directly to the audience, emphasizing democratic reforms, calling for freedom of speech and basic human rights and accusing Putin of perpetrating state terrorism. Navalny says that, as president, he would decrease centralized power and end the authoritarian regime. Such statements show just how different Navalny’s platform is from the current Russian political system.
The documentary relies heavily on news broadcasts and footage of protests to highlight Navalny’s impact and portray the reality of the political situation in Russia. Footage taken prior to the assassination attempt shows Navalny criticizing the government as corrupt and stating that he wants to end Russia’s involvement in Ukraine and Syria. This demonstrates both Navalny’s consistent political positions and his popularity, as large crowds respond enthusiastically to the idea of ending Russia’s ongoing efforts to expand its territory into Ukraine.
Videos of Russian citizens opposing the government and of the police forcefully breaking up protests provide evidence of the diversity of political stances within the nation. While viewers may assume that Russian citizens largely support its government actions, including the war against Ukraine, this documentary shows a variety of opinions — including the efforts and desire for change within Russia.
The most suspenseful part of the film comes when the documentary zeroes in on the assassination attempt of Navalny and subsequent investigation into the poisoning. Footage documents Navalny’s near-death experience in Russia, and his treatment and recovery in Berlin. Investigators trace the assassination plot back to 2017 after Navalny announced his candidacy for president.
While many viewers may be familiar with these events, most are probably unaware of the intricate details of the investigation. The film delves into modern information warfare, the prevalence of fake news, the work that goes into debunking lies and the difficulty of spreading the truth in Russia. The film shows a team of investigative journalists obtaining data on the dark web, using phone records and passenger manifests to ultimately identify the Russian Federal Security Service unit tasked with assassinating Navalny and discussing the poison used in the assassination attempt while consulting a chemical weapons expert. Though this portion of the film centers on the assassination attempt, viewers get to see the reality of Russian censorship. This censorship — an attempt to control the narrative on the war in Ukraine — can be seen in the government’s efforts to block access to social media and foreign news outlets.
In addition to suspense and intrigue, the film pokes fun at Putin and his administration. It mocks Putin for refusing to refer to Navalny by name and ridicules him for the “stupidity” of using a poison considered his signature. This satire is best illustrated when Navalny poses as a government official and tricks a chemist involved in the assassination attempt into revealing the details of the poisoning. These moments help the audience see yet another area in which Putin falls short: the failure to account for public reaction.
Footage of Russian government officials denying involvement on the state television channel offers insight into how the state controls information and spreads fake news. The documentary emphasizes the validity of the investigation, which was fact-checked by independent media organizations. The contrast between the two approaches to freedom is remarkable — and with Russia’s efforts to take control of Ukraine, this becomes even more striking.
Despite being geared toward a broad audience, the documentary is not at all simplistic. It delves into the nuances of the Russian political scene. For example, investigator Christo Grozev, who has criticized Navalny in the past, questions whether Navalny could be one of the fake opposition leaders created by the Kremlin to discredit the opposition. Images of Navalny walking alongside nationalists have long raised skepticism about his true intentions.
The film explains Navalny’s interactions with the extreme right early on in his career and voices the concerns this raises among foreign and domestic audiences. Navalny responds, explaining that he is comfortable because he considers it his “political superpower” to be able to talk to everyone. He views this dialogue as necessary to create a “broader coalition to fight the authoritarian regime just to achieve the situation where everyone can participate in [the] political election.” Moreover, he states that the Russian government abuses its power to the point of carrying out assassinations, so he believes that standing alongside nationalists is not so bad in comparison.
Whether or not you agree with Navalny’s assessment, acknowledging the criticism and addressing it head-on is an effective strategy. Overall, the film casts Navalny in a positive light. Devoting just a few minutes to critiques not only adds credibility but helps audiences from different political backgrounds who may have trouble coming to terms with this side of Navalny’s platform better understand the complex political situation in Russia.
The documentary culminates in Navalny’s arrest upon returning to Moscow from Berlin — followed by an encouraging message from Navalny to the audience. He issues a call to action that is reminiscent of the themes of the film. The documentary presents a timely portrayal of Navalny’s role as opposition leader, a crucial voice in a bleak political environment. Particularly when the Russian government suppresses any dissenting opinions, it is more important than ever to illuminate bold stories of resistance.