If you follow American politics even a little bit, chances are you’ve heard of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The newly-elected 28-year-old Congresswoman has been a champion of the new wave of progressive leaders, and a lightning rod for conservatives who can’t seem to shut up about her. She was elected in a year that saw an unprecedented number of women run for congressional office, and Rachel Lears’ documentary Knock Down the House is about her journey and those of three other women who sought to bring change to Washington.
For the record, I’m one of those who prays at the altar of AOC. She’s my political kindred spirit and I’ve been on board with this movie since it debuted at Sundance a few months ago. For others who consider themselves her supporters, there’s a lot to love as most of the film centers on Ocasio-Cortez and her grassroots campaign to unseat 10-term incumbent Joe Crowley. Lears dives headfirst into the Bronx bartender’s working class upbringing, showing the impact her late father had on inspiring her progressive ideals. Ocasio-Cortez is charismatic and has energy to spare which makes her a natural focal point. It doesn’t hurt that she’s also extremely well-prepared, fearless, and fighting an uphill battle against an opponent who never considered her a threat. When Crowley sent a campaign surrogate to a debate rather than attend himself, Ocasio-Cortez tore into them both and won over the crowd with ease. Crowley does not come across well here, but then again he’s not who this movie is about.
Unfortunately, Ocasio-Cortez’s story, as entertaining as it is, overshadows the other three women whose stories are equally compelling. There’s West Virginia native Paula Jean Swearengin, a coal miner’s daughter who dared take on the mighty incumbent Joe Manchin. While Manchin has won by appealing to the dwindling-but-powerful coal lobby, Swearengin hopes to move West Virginia into the future and green energy. There’s Cori Bush, who entered Missouri’s congressional race in the wake of the Ferguson riots. And finally, Nevada’s Amy Vilela was inspired by a desire to change the healthcare system following her daughter’s death. All of these women are relegated to the background, seen in brief snippets that suggest multiple movies could be built around these inspirational candidates.
The good news is that Ocasio-Cortez’s underdog story is a real crowd-pleaser. Lears breezes through the election night for most of the women (for reasons that are obvious to anyone who knows the results), but captures moments of raw vulnerability and passion from Ocasio-Cortez. We all know how her election turned out, but we haven’t seen her insecurity about it right up until the electric moment, one of year’s top feel-good moments, when she learns she’s actually leading in the polls.
While Knock Down the House ends on a high note, it’s unquestionably bittersweet when taken in totality. However, it’s also an invigorating call to arms for anyone who feels the system has worked only for the wealthy and special interests. While all of Lears’ subjects may not have emerged victorious, they took a stand and it’s the fight that truly matters.