Documentaries are meant to be a magnifying glass on life and culture. Some serve as a time capsule of events hard to believe, while others serve as illuminating displays of things unimaginably true. Few serve as both. In the 100 minutes of Navalny, I was shocked, angered, and amazed as I finished watching the best documentary of Sundance 2022.

Indeed, Navalny won the U.S. Documentary Audience Award Winner at the festival as well as the Festival Favorite Audience Award, a fan voted competition amongst the nearly 100 features at the festival, an incredible honor for a documentary.

Daniel Roher directs one of the most memorable, captivating documentaries of the past few years covering the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Many may be familiar with the mysterious events surrounding the poisoning and eventual imprisonment of Alexie Navalny, but the documentary which bears his name delivers incredible access to its subject and family during these times. The audience gets a front row seat to a film that feels more like a Jason Bourne movie than a documentary.

Alexei Navalny is a lawyer and vocal critic of Vladamir Putin. Through protests, rallies, and a massive online presence Navalny came to prominence as a symbol of freedom and a different path for Russians. The beginning of the documentary chronicles his importance to the opposition and what his presence means to so many.

Navalny takes a sharp turn when it details the mysterious poisoning of Alexie in August 2020. The filmmakers focus on how his poisoning was covered by the global media and how that differed from the coverage by the Russian news. As this is all happening the documentary crew is able to follow Alexie’s wife Yulia, as she goes to visit him and demand the right to take her comatose husband out of the country. This is where the documentary crew stumbles into a story so hard to believe. Was he really poisoned? How did he survive? Was Putin behind this? Did they want him dead? Through unprecedented access Roher and his crew join Navalny and several other interesting characters in solving the answer to all of these questions.

Navalny is a larger-than-life character. It makes complete sense he grew to the level of influence of power he did. His hubris and pride are the reason he got himself in the situation in the first place, but also exactly what is needed to face off to powers that seem insurmountable. He by no means is a saint and pure, but simply doing everything he can, by any means to give Russia a different option.

The film takes so many twists and turns that lead to an ending that is very much not made for Hollywood. It is an absolute thrilling ride that culminates in one of the most fascinating phone calls ever recorded in a documentary as Navalny gets the chance to speak to a unknowing scientist that was put in charge of killing him.

The documentary is a fascinating look into Russian politics and the media’s influence. Throughout the documentary you bare witness to Russian pundits and journalists attacking Navalny’s credibility and accusations. Navalny is brash, confident and unwavering through everything. He understands what he must do and he never backs down.

The greatest of documentaries become illuminating experiences. Navalny is one of the most jarring, hard to believe stories I have ever seen. It elicits so much emotion and disbelief from the moment he starts talking to the final frame when he walks off. It is a film that will grow in historical significance depending on how Navalny’s story plays out.

Navalny is a master craft of documentary storytelling. Its impact will live long past this festival and the lives of the man it portrays. While everything that happens seems impossible to be true, the fact it is becomes terrifying as it goes deeper and deeper.

While the film is great, it did leave me wanting just a little more.  I would have enjoyed going a little deeper into Navalny’s time before the events of the poisonings as well as a closer examination of his politics and his plans to better Russia. However, I do understand that wasn’t what the documentary was meant to focus on. Instead it is a tightly edited time capsule on the turbulent reaction to someone who opposes one of the most dangerous men on this planet.
Of the 20 films I saw I Sundance this year, this by far is the most exhilarating, powerful, and important.


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Nathan is one of HeyUGuys' US correspondents and loves movies. You'll find him at Sundance Film Festival on an annual basis watching and reviewing movies before most others.