I’m not an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez fan, although I’ve followed her rise closely. Her garbling of defense budget numbers, wholly inadequate answers to Margaret Hoover’s questions on “The Firing Line,” and authentically socialist (or socialism-nearing) policy proposals (like a massive tax increase on the wealthy, and “free” college for all, which serves more as a handout to the upper middle class than anything) fundamentally go against the free-market ideology I hold near and dear.
Still, the documentary “Knock Down The House,” which premiered yesterday on Netflix and highlights Ocasio-Cortez’s journey (along with three other women), was a Sundance and SXSW favorite for a reason: because it’s good, and because the beauty of vulnerability and grit transcends ideology, at least for a fleeting second.
Directed by Rachel Lears and edited by Robin Blotnick, “Knock Down The House” feels deliberate. It doesn’t shy away from the personal stories and hardships of the four women looking to unseat incumbents and provide new blood in their districts. Amy Vilela, who ran for Nevada’s 4th Congressional District, was motivated to change health care after her daughter died unexpectedly in her early twenties.
Cori Bush, an African-American woman, ran for Missouri’s 1st Congressional District because of her proximity to Ferguson, Missouri, and her will to reform policing involving excessive use of force. Paula Jean Swearengin ran against West Virginian incumbent Joe Manchin, primarily focused on environmental and health-care issues––relevant to her because of the number of people in her small West Virginia town who had died of mining-related illnesses or cancer.
The movie doesn’t end in triumph, except for Ocasio-Cortez. Vilela, Bush, and Swearengin failed at their underdog bids to challenge those in power and lost each of their elections. Ocasio-Cortez is the candidate followed most closely (the filmmakers are New Yorkers, and had easier access to her), but the film harbors no delusions that this Justice Democrats/Brand New Congress political incubator-created wave is anything more than a faint glimmer of hope for far-left Democrats. Still, plucky upstarts are interesting to follow, and Lears and Blotnick showcase women in particular, choosing not to hide their passion and emotion, but to anchor the movie to it.
Emotion is humanizing, after all. The scene where Vilela breaks down in her house after losing, a few small children nearby to witness the curse word that escaped her lips, was all too relatable. Swearengin’s lingering glances while on the phone with Manchin, the longtime politician she’d just lost to, make you glad she has a support system of people with her.
The most striking moment was almost definitely when Ocasio-Cortez found out she’d defeated Joe Crowley in the primary, and planted her elbows firmly in the grimy victory party bar, eyes wide, TV screen reflected in those big brown orbs, hand covering her mouth in what can only be described as shock as people screamed and cried around her, some jumping up and down. People don’t like automaton politicians, and these four women are anything but.
Much of the documentary’s strength lies in who Lears chose as subjects––thoughtful and interesting, though the “shake up the status quo” thing gets a bit old and populist-seeming after a while, especially because it’s worth asking what the status quo is being replaced with. In Ocasio-Cortez’s case, increased regulation and government meddling, massive tax hikes to fund redistributive policies (some of which are universal, rather than means-tested, which effectively makes them foolish handouts to the already wealthy, at the expense of the more-wealthy), idiotic Green New Deal policies that cost enormous globs of money and inspire pseudo-scientific environmentalism and fearmongering hyperbole … the alternative isn’t too great.
Still, we can celebrate the fact that gutsy women across the country feel inspired to challenge the entrenched political establishment, full of corrupt, self-serving politicians so far removed from the interests of their constituents. That is, as long as we remember that they, too, can be corrupted by power or sheer idiocy, and just because the incumbents they’re replacing are bad doesn’t mean they’re necessarily better. All politicians will disappoint you in the end––which is a great argument for reducing the scope and influence of the federal government.
If you like a well-made political underdog story (or maybe just want to quietly revel in a bit of schadenfreude), “Knock Down The House” is worth your time.