If you have any sort of investment in progressive politics or even in the idea of America as a place where anyone can do anything, it’s hard not to start crying at about, oh, a dozen different points in Rachel Lears’ emotional-without-being-overly-manipulative documentary “Knock Down the House,” which has played Sundance and SXSW but has been acquired by Netflix.
The doc followed four House races: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Amy Vilela, Cori Bush and Paula Jean Swearengin, all of whom attempted 2018 primary challenges (from the left) to male incumbents and all of whom were endorsed by the Brand New Congress political action committee.
All four had compelling, hard-scrabble stories. Vilela, a Nevada resident, was spurred to political action after her 22-year old daughter died of a pulmonary embolism after a hospital turned her away for lack of proof of insurance. Swearengin is a multi-generational Appalachian whose town suffered a cancer bloom after years of mining chemicals. Bush was a St. Louis nurse who bore witness to the Ferguson uprising and tried to render aid.
And then there is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is easily the most famous face here, what with her jaw-dropping win over former New York Rep. Joe Crowley (who pretty much phoned in his campaign and paid the price). AOC, as she is known, is one of the most famous Democrats in the world right now but her story is no less compelling than the other three women, who did not (spoiler warning) unseat their opponents.
All four have similar values: Universal, single payer health care (known now as Medicare for all), reclaim working class votes from the right (in part by being actually working class), no PAC money. All four are fantastic to watch and the movie could have easily run three times as long, following each equal amounts.
But hey, the filmmaker’s lucked into following AOC, whose legitimately amazing win was a galvanizing moment for the contemporary left, not to mention the fact that her extraordinary energy pours off the screen. From the first debate where Crowley sent a proxy (jeez, that poor woman) to AOC and her boyfriend at home in their tiny apartment to the debates Crowley actually showed up for, Lears got the sort of emotionally intimate access filmmakers dream of.
So when the big days come (Lears picked candidates such that their primaries would not be on the same day, which would have been impossible to film), you are right there with each of the candidates, through three tough losses and a win so surprising (even when you know it is going to happen!) that the joy therein is completely tangible.