As the polls closed on election night 2018, Amy Vilela, running for congress in Nevada’s 4th District, saw her upstart campaign end in defeat. Just beginning to process that loss, she received a call from her friend and fellow insurgent candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the newly elected Representative for New York’s 14th District.
Transmitting comfort and encouragement, Ocasio-Cortez tells her comrade that, in the ongoing fight against a rigged political system, “for one of us to get through, a hundred of us have to try.” The emotion of the moment, captured on-camera from Vilela’s side of the call, resounds powerfully, as do Ocasio-Cortez’s words in summing up the balance of storytelling in the new Netflix documentary Knock Down the House (★★★).
The filmmakers — led by Rachel Lears, who directed, shot, and produced — garnered the access and lucked into the timing to follow the concurrent 2018 narratives of four female, Democratic, outsider candidates for congress, including Vilela and the notorious AOC, along with Cori Bush running for the House in Missouri’s 1st District, and Paula Jean Swearengin running for Joe Manchin’s Senate seat in West Virginia.
While Knock Down the House draws a compelling story from each woman’s uphill primary battle against an establishment male opponent, the film delivers a truly great portrait of only one of the four featured — the obvious one — while somewhat dropping the ball on the other three. Whatever their original intentions might have been to present a broad picture of four fledgling politicians, no one could blame Lears and editor-producer Robin Blotnick for shifting focus to Ocasio-Cortez. The camera doesn’t lie: AOC’s presence is magnetic, her speeches dynamic. And, of course, she and her team ran a winning race.
Consequently, provides Ocasio-Cortez noticeably more screen time and characterizing detail. It’s worth the added time to see how the young bartender and waitress emerged from among dozens of “everyday people” candidates put forth as part of a grassroots effort by groups Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress to shift power in politics away from corporations.
Vilela, Bush, Ocasio-Cortez, and Swearengin all hit the road on a Brand New Congress national tour that allows the candidates to hone their messages and meet the voters. The film also tracks each woman in her home district, in the living rooms and on the front porches where a grassroots campaign is brought to life. Knock Down the House defines in clear terms what purpose drives the individual candidates, and discovers what epiphany, or tragedy, inspired them to run.
None runs harder than AOC. Touting her experience in hospitality — the good, bad, and the ugly of serving tacos and tequila — as excellent preparation for running a campaign, Ocasio-Cortez does all the grunt work of making calls and going door-to-door, and prepping relentlessly for speeches and debates. She, and the film, also benefit from the low-key portrayal of her opponent, Queens Democratic boss Joe Crowley, as a bumbling villain. Crowley, who had served the voters of the 14th District since 1999, gives AOC the material to whip him with, so that’s on him.
He skips their first primary debate in the Bronx, and when he does show up for a debate on local TV network NY1, he looks exactly like the kind of candidate who woefully underestimated the competition. Clearly, he hadn’t been paying attention, since one thing that is certain upon seeing Ocasio-Cortez run is that she should not be underestimated. She says at one point that each candidate’s campaign should address the question, “Why you?” And she answers that question here.
The question for others who don’t win might be, “Why not me?” By comparison, Knock Down the House shows who is and is not lacking in star quality while out on the stump. But beyond that “It factor,” it is not entirely clear from this film what other obstacles kept Vilela from winning her race, or might have determined the results of Bush’s or Swearengin’s. Distracted by the shiny, fierce, victorious star on the horizon, the movie leaves the losing candidates in the dark.
Briefly, though, it casts light on the armies of dedicated supporters and volunteers who power a long-shot electoral campaign, and the film definitely adds meaningful perspective to the monumental midterms of 2018. An election that will be remembered by many as a showdown between “the Old Guard versus the Progressive New Guard,” as one newscaster puts it, gets boiled down here to an incomplete, but compelling, play-by-play of three political races, and a stealth bio of, and persuasive mission statement for, the historic candidacy of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Knock Down the House is rated PG, and is now playing at Landmark’s E Street Cinemas and streaming on Netflix. Visit www.landmarktheatres.com/washington-d-c.