We always thought that espionage and poisoning was no laughing matter, but makers of Channel 4’s new documentary The Man Putin Couldn’t Kill clearly assumed otherwise. Perhaps it’s fitting for the story of the satirical opponent of Vladimir Putin to be given a comedy jaunt treatment. Think James Bond meets Panorama, with a dash of Mr Bean thrown in for good measure – when it comes to nerve agent poisoning, Alexei Navalny proves that if you don’t laugh, you’ll die.
It’s a serious story – activist Alexei Navalny is poisoned with the notorious Novichok nerve agent, unbelievably the third of three poisoning attacks on the activist, sealed with a kiss from the Russian government. And exactly how did Putin manage to administer Novichok to this cat with nine lives? Through his underpants of course – Navalny’s, that is.
+ If you love films about Russian nerve agents (a niche genre, granted), read our review of The Salisbury Poisonings
+ For more seriously surreal documentary filmmaking, refer to the expert himself, Mr Louis Theroux
The Telegraph’s Anita Singh states that the documentary “put a black humour spin on the surreal story of a pair of poisoned underpants”, and for us, it’s this delving into the “surreal” which makes this film so successful.
Despite being a sober tale of attempted murder with a story which, as Singh states “at its heart was obviously terrible”, Singh reckons “it was all pretty entertaining…told in a quirky style, broken up into chapters with headings like “Underpants at Dawn”. Carol Midgley, writing for The Times, would agree, praising how “it combined meticulous, often jaw-dropping evidence about his novichok-poisoned underpants with a lively sense of humour, echoing its protagonist’s jocular irreverence.” Likewise, in The Financial Times, Suzi Feaypraises the parallels between the film’s style and its subject’s story, calling it “jaunty”, in the same “mode in which Navalny rose to fame, speaking directly to Russian youth via Twitter and Facebook.”
A gobsmacking documentary which is fiercely factual and ferociously funny? Sounds like a TV treat that you don’t want to miss.
First shown September 2021