‘Antidote’ Review: A Tense, Entertaining Documentary About the Perils of Investigative Journalism

From its very first moments, “Antidote” unspools like a propulsive thriller. An off-camera voice asks Bulgarian investigative journalist Christo Grozev, “Did you ever think you’d be investigating an assassination plot against yourself?” From that startling introduction, director James Jones’ galvanizing documentary moves at a fast speed to tell its high-stakes story about Vladimir Putin’s Russia, contemporary investigative journalism and the people who put their lives in jeopardy for what they believe in.

In addition to Grozev, the film follows two other activists. The first is an unnamed scientist who participated in Russia’s poison-making program. After finding out that the poison he developed was being used to terminate Putin’s enemies, he turned whistleblower. The film chronicles how Grozev, who published his testimonies, attempts to help him and his family flee Russia into the European Union. His facial features have been digitally altered by the filmmakers to maintain his anonymity. The scenes that feature his escape play as if they are from a fictional action movie, except that here, the stakes are life and death.

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The third protagonist is Russian opposition leader Vladimir Kara-Murza, who was allegedly poisoned by Putin’s mercenaries twice and tried for treason in Moscow. Since he spends the four years during which the film was made (from 2019 to 2023) in prison, his wife Evgenia Kara-Murza becomes his voice and surrogate in the film, just as she was in real life. Faced with grave consequences, their quest opposing the war in Ukraine and the Russian regime’s autocratic methods gives “Antidote” its emotional center.

In fact, this family angle becomes an integral part of “Antidote.” Not only do we follow the Kara-Murzas, but we see the impact this work takes on Gorzev’s family too. His son appears on-camera, his daughter is heard on the phone and the mystery surrounding his father’s disappearance connects the personal to the professional in tangible ways. Loss, separation and dread fuel the anxieties of these people at all times. What the film smartly uncovers is why they continue to do what they do.

Despite all these emotional beats, the narrative thrust of “Antidote” remains the investigative reporting. Grozev is the central figure, and the film follows him as he criss-crosses Europe and North America to make sense of the poisoning scheme. While methodical and determined, his methods are not very cinematic. This is a journalist who buys information online with crypto, then spends endless hours cowering over spreadsheets trying to make sense out of it. Jones and editor Rupert Houseman manage to infuse drama and tension, using quick cuts and seamless transitions between the many narrative threads.

While Grozev makes for a compelling subject, the film needed more flashy counterpoints to match the adrenaline rush these journalists describe. Enter Russian journalist Roman Dobrokhotov, a colleague of Grozev’s. With his leather jacket, Dobrokhotov comes across as self-assured bordering on arrogant, mincing no words talking about Putin’s goals. He’s complemented by another journalist talking head, Fidelius Schmid, who has a reassuring influence on the surroundings. The three are distinct enough from each other, showing why different personalities are intrigued by this line of work.

Any film about this topic taking place at this time must include the story of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, the subject of the 2022 Oscar-winning documentary “Navalny.” Grozev actually appeared in that movie, and Navalny is mentioned briefly here. However, what distinguishes “Antidote” is that it keeps the focus firmly on the journalists and their work. In doing so, it avoids the murky waters of trying to explain the politics of its subjects. This is not a film about what politicians stand for or why they oppose their governments, but rather a story about how a team of journalists uncovers a conspiracy and the impact it has on their lives and the lives of the people they are writing about.

In addition to the interviews and the real time documentation of how some of these events unfolded, Jones adds animation and newscast footage. He follows Grozev as he tries to reconcile his work with family obligations. All of this makes for an entertaining watch with emotional gravitas. While “Antidote” might appear to be a straightforward David vs. Goliath story, in choosing to concentrate on the arduous work of how the truth gets uncovered, the filmmakers end up making a rousing, feature-length call to action.

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