Knock Down The House

***

Reviewed by: Jeremy Mathews

Knock Down The House
"The documentary is clearly on the side of candidates, which is fine, but it could also benefit from a bit more scepticism and empathy for its auxiliary subjects." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

If you’re ever in doubt of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s charisma, watch Knock Down the House. In an election documentary in which three of the four featured candidates lose, her presence makes it feel like a victory for everyone.

Ocasio-Cortez, popularly known as AOC, has become an icon of the young American left since her upset primary victory in 2018 led to her being the youngest woman to serve in the United States Congress. The 29-year-old is a smart, charismatic champion for the working class, and known for her willingness to snap back at right-wing haters on social media. While a documentary about AOC would be a no-brainer now, director Rachel Lears had the foresight to start filming the congresswoman when she was still a bartender in New York's Bronx, launching a campaign that was expected to fail.

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The film — which is now available on UK Netflix and screening at Doc/Fest — follows four 2018 Democratic primary candidates who are new to US politics and part of a movement that is partly attributed to the election of Donald Trump in 2016. The common thread is that they’re all women, taking on establishment candidates via grassroots efforts. There are two more congressional candidates — Cori Bush of Missouri’s First District and Amy Vilela of Nevada’s Fourth District — as well as Paula Jean Swearengin, who took on West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin.

Lears mixes biographical vignettes and interviews with on-site footage capturing the day-to-day drama of the campaign. The fly-on-the-wall moments provide the most enlightening and engaging portions of the film. The biographical bits sometimes feel like TV news pieces, but they do add some dramatic weight, such as the story of Vilela’s daughter's death, which Vilela blames on the hospital turning away patients if they don’t have insurance. That tragedy inspired her to fight for single-payer healthcare.

While all four candidates have interesting stories, Lears and her producer/editor, Robin Blotnick, know that AOC is the star of the show, and keep rounding back to her campaign progress while also taking detours for family bio segments about her childhood. AOC’s passion and sincerity can become intoxicating when mixed with her lively, engaged and funny personality.

The documentary is clearly on the side of candidates, which is fine, but it could also benefit from a bit more scepticism and empathy for its auxiliary subjects. For example, the portrayal of AOC’s opponent, 10-term incumbent Joseph Crowley, feels a bit overeager to make him an out-of-touch buffoon, when perhaps he was simply not prepared for such a skilled opponent after 18 years of easy elections. The editing and tone often feels like the filmmakers think a bigger villain is on screen than the footage actually portrays. One moment, in which a constituent tells Crowley he supports him and insults AOC, feels as though it’s intended as a gotcha moment, but Crowley tells the supporter not to insult AOC.

Regardless, it’s difficult not to get swept up in the narrative of the campaigns, especially when AOC realises she has, in fact, pulled off the upset. Her shock, excitement and thrill all comes through on camera, and it leads to the uplifting crowd-pleasing conclusion everyone wants. Politics can often be disheartening, but Knock Down the House reminds us that there’s also potential for inspiration.

Reviewed on: 03 Jun 2019
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Knock Down The House packshot
Four young Democratic candidates take on established incumbents in the US 2018 election.


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