Courtesy CNN

By all accounts—Kremlin sources aside—Alexei Navalny is a hero. A principled warrior fighting a righteous battle against insurmountable odds. His enemy won’t even mention him by name, which everyone around Navalny takes as evidence that the strongman is running scared. He says things at rallies and in YouTube and TikTok videos that are demonstrably true. He has a devoted family and a rabid fan base. Women consider him handsome. So why do I have trouble believing anything that comes out of his mouth?

HBO, CNN, and a grab bag of other producers have pushed the debut of Daniel Roher’s documentary Navalny because of Russia’s war on Ukraine. That’s an understandable, if opportunistic, move. The reasoning is that a film about Putin’s most famous opponent—currently jailed for his outspoken views and temerity in trying to topple a dictatorship—is a timely statement and bound to aid the cause. I’m not a politician or strategist, so I don’t know whether releasing a 90-minute infomercial will move the needle one way or the other. I just know deep in my bones that this is an awful movie.

The look of the film will be familiar to anyone who watches contemporary reality or true-crime product. It’s razor-sharp focused; there are many, many cuts, alternating at strategic intervals with slower scenes meant for audience reflection—these often feature drone shots of snowscapes and sentimental sequences with cute but woebegone livestock. It’s a high-end feature-length campaign video. Few candidates could afford a thing like this.

Please don’t get me wrong: I want Putin gone, I want the citizens of my birth country to stop worshiping strongmen, I want Russia to stop invading countries and calling it self-defense. If I had a vote—which I don’t since I was stripped of citizenship when my family left the USSR in 1978—I’d cast it for Navalny in a second. But none of that, or dozens of other reasons you or I could come up with, would make me like this man or the piece of agitprop made on his behalf.

There’s little in the documentary that wasn’t previously published and known. The most compelling sequence, when Navalny calls one of the chemists responsible for his attempted poisoning and gets the clueless man to admit to all the details of the plot, is difficult to take at face value. In our current fake news era, it sounds like a put-on, but even if it happened exactly as portrayed, Navalny and his cronies’ cynical and mean-spirited mockery of the man on the other line—a man undoubtedly condemned to death because of his answering Navalny’s call—makes the “good guys” in this scenario look like real assholes.

0.5/4 stars
R, 98 min. 
Stream on CNNgo or watch live on CNN May 7, 8 PM.

I watched this movie in a packed auditorium in Chicago. Prior to the screening, speeches in support of Ukraine, of freedom, etc. were made by various dignitaries. The audience cheered each of Navalny’s tired witticisms, they sneered as the rogues’ gallery of conspirators were reported missing, they oohed and aahed at all the times the filmmakers hoped they would. I bet they left the theater feeling like they’d made their position on the right side of history loud and clear. I left feeling hollow and angry. Like I’d been manipulated using methods pioneered and perfected under the long-gone Soviet regime of my childhood.

It was a terrible feeling. I wouldn’t recommend it to my worst enemy.