The Daily Stream: Navalny Is A Fearless Documentary Shocker

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: "Navalny"

Where You Can Stream It: HBO Max

The Pitch: This is a documentary about Vladimir Putin's boldest critic, a gutsy and confident man named Alexei Navalny who frequently makes a meal out of exposing the Kremlin's lies and control tactics. Navalny has been an opposition leader in Russian politics for years, but the documentary traces his rising impact on the Russian people — and the Russian government's impact on him — specifically after he dared to run against the Kremlin in 2018.

If you've followed global news recently, you likely know that Navalny was hospitalized for signs of poisoning in 2020. You may even know what happened afterwards: that his team launched a successful investigation of their own into the identity of his poisoners, that he returned to Russia despite the near-inevitability of imprisonment, and that his current status is extremely concerning. These are the facts, but Daniel Roher's documentary lays them out in the most compelling and vital way possible. "Navalny" is a thrill ride, an effective character portrait, and a searing, galvanizing political work. It also includes one of the most riveting centerpiece scenes I've ever witnessed in a work of non-fiction.

Why It's Essential Viewing

There's a part of "Navalny" that I can't stop talking about. The scene involves Navalny, recently recovered from a nerve agent attack that left him all but dead on an airplane, prank-calling his own poisoners. He's surrounded by a team of people who watch as he holds one man on the phone for moments on end, questioning him about the conditions of the poisoning while pretending to be his higher-up's assistant. It's daring and shocking, and the people who surround him as he uncovers the conspiracy on speakerphone can only cover their mouths to keep silent.

This might be the most talked-about part of "Navalny," a film that was made in secret and kept under wraps until its last-minute addition to the Sundance lineup this year. Yet the whole documentary is a courageous, heart-pounding work. Navalny is a 40-something guy with a charming but no-nonsense attitude and the specific sense of humor of someone who knows death could come for him any minute. At the film's start, Roher asks Navalny what message he wants to leave the Russian people if he is killed. The politician waves the question away, saying Roher will have to put that in the sequel.

There's a fearlessness to Navalny – the man and the movie – that's almost overwhelming. So much of what happens in authoritarian governments can feel utterly abstract to those who aren't experiencing them firsthand, but "Navalny" makes the danger of speaking out against the Kremlin, and the importance of doing so anyway, plain as day. It also brings the Russian people to life, charting Navalny's online popularity and catching the many whispered thanks that follow him as he makes his inevitable way back to his homeland. Audacious to the very end, Roher's film is a must-see in the truest sense of the word.