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'Navalny' documentary spotlights the Russian who dared to take on Putin

In his valuable new book, The Age of the Strongman, Gideon Rachman argues that our world is dominated by populist leaders who are destroying democracy, in part by making a cult of their own leadership. He devotes his first chapter to the strongman he calls "the archetype": Vladimir Putin, the Russian president/dictator whose true nature is currently on display in Ukraine.

Of course, Putin isn't shy about attacking his own citizens either. Among his top targets is Alexei Navalny, the charismatic, media-savvy dissident who's been so forceful in calling out the Kremlin's lies and corruption that Putin literally won't say his name.

Navalny, currently in prison, is the subject of a new documentary by Daniel Roher that, while sometimes heavy-handed, is never less than compelling. Made before the invasion of Ukraine, and titled simply Navalny, it offers intimate, sometimes amazing access to the bravery, and human cost, of opposing a despot.

Rather than offer a head-on summary of Navalny's career, the film centers on its most dramatic episode. In August 2020, Navalny is flying from Siberia back to Moscow — we see footage from the plane — when he suddenly becomes deathly ill.

The flight is diverted to Omsk, where he's taken to a hospital whose doctors are weirdly reluctant to let his wife, Yulia Navalnaya, see him. Fearing a murder attempt, she and his colleagues fight to get him flown to a hospital in Germany. There it's established that he'd been given a dose of Novichok, a deadly nerve gas known as Putin's signature poison.

Once he starts to recover, Navalny and his team try to figure out who had tried to kill him. They hook up with the investigative journalist Christo Grozev from the website Bellingcat, whom Navalny calls a "nice, very kind Bulgarian nerd with a laptop." Hacking into flight manifests and so forth, Grozev narrows down the possible killers, some of whom have been shadowing Navalny since 2017. In the film's most breathtaking moment — which I won't spoil — they get the smoking gun with the Kremlin's fingerprints on it.

While this investigation unfolds as excitingly as a thriller, Roher is equally interested in providing us with a close-up portrait of the man inside the hero. We see Navalny's joy at feeding donkeys with his wife and his love for his son and TikTokking daughter. We see his humor and brilliance on the stump: He gets a Russian crowd gleefully chanting that Putin is a thief. And we sense the fury that helps fuel him. At one point, a colleague tells him that in answering Roher's questions his eyes are too angry, that he needs to look kinder.

Now, Navalny is not beyond reproach. Although he's grown more enlightened over the years, he has a somewhat unsettling past as a Russian nationalist. He once walked in a march that included neo-fascists, an action he still defends by arguing that to oust one as powerful as Putin, you must be willing to work with groups you don't fully approve of.

In any case, one shouldn't be too critical of someone willing to risk everything battling oppressive authorities. A certain messianic vanity and wildness comes with this territory.

Navalny is obviously brilliant at channeling his rebelliousness, and his success as a YouTube provocateur shows the power of social media to challenge dictatorship. Putin clearly finds him threatening; after all, crowds turn up at the airport to greet Navalny on his return to Moscow.

Yet we're also reminded that social media's soft power is rarely a match for the hard power of state repression, like the cops arresting and beating those supporters who turned up at the airport. Navalny exults that one of his videos gets a million views in an hour, yet that doesn't stop Putin from putting him in prison — he's still there, serving a nine-year term — any more than the world's horror stopped Putin from invading Ukraine.

Late in the film, as he heads back to almost certain arrest in Russia, Navalny posts an inspiring video in which he declares that he's not afraid and he urges his supporters — and us — not to be afraid either. Now, he doesn't really expect that we will all be as flamboyantly brave as he is. Few are. Yet as Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his fellow Ukrainians are proving right now, it's possible for ordinary people to be terrified by the malevolence of a tyrant like Putin and still muster the courage to fight him.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.