In the 2018 election, more women than ever ran for office. “Knock Down the House” is a look at four of those campaigns. Unfortunately, the one that’s already most famous overshadows the three who might be more interesting.
The Netflix documentary, which is also being released in select theaters, follows four Democratic women who challenged incumbents from their own party to bring about a more liberal agenda: Amy Vilela in Nevada’s 4th Congressional District; Cori Bush, who took on Rep. William Lacy Clay (Mo.), a member of a St. Louis political dynasty; and Paula Jean Swearengin, who ran for U.S. Senate against West Virginia incumbent Joe Manchin III. The film’s fourth subject comes from the Bronx and took down a 10-term incumbent. Her name is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. You might have heard of her.
For most of the film, Ocasio-Cortez is the star. That makes sense. Not only is she charismatic, but her scrappy, grass-roots campaign is a study in what it means to be an underdog who gets her day. Unfortunately, director Rachel Lears’s choice to lean so heavily on Ocasio-Cortez means that the other three women are given short shrift. It’s not until well into the film, for example, that we find out Vilela was spurred to run by the loss of her daughter, whose death she blames on the current health-care system. Swearengin is a coal miner’s daughter who wants to swing West Virginia’s economy to green energy, and Bush began her official political career after the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Mo.. These are all compelling stories that deserve telling, but Lears casts three of them as supporting players in the Ocasio-Cortez show.
Luckily, that show isn’t a bad one. Lears uses home movies to give viewers a sense of Ocasio-Cortez’s early life and adolescence, and she’s particularly gifted at making the correlation between Ocasio-Cortez’s political drive and the loss of her father when she was 19. It’s a great campaign story as well. In one early debate, Ocasio-Cortez stomps a clearly unprepared surrogate sent in to represent incumbent Joseph Crowley. Ocasio-Cortez is up front about not only her goals and her drives, but also her insecurities: she notices that her voice goes up in pitch when she’s asking people to vote for her. One does have to think about slant; Crowley only shows up rarely on camera, and when he does, he comes off as both slightly bewildered and slightly buffoonish. “Knock Down the House” is about Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign, but it also clearly takes her side.
Lears misses another opportunity when it comes to addressing why the women’s campaigns are so different (all were backed by progressive groups Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats). Ocasio-Cortez has billboards and brochures, while Vilela’s team is seen spray-painting poster board. Ocasio-Cortez has rallies; Swearengin delivers one speech from a porch, overgrown with vines, to a nearly empty yard. “Knock Down the House” never addresses why there’s such a vast difference in resources. Lears also has to contend with the fact that everyone knows how Ocasio-Cortez’s race turns out. (Spoiler alert: she won.) That would be an opportunity to give at least some focus to the races where viewers may not know the results. Instead, the filmmaker spends mere minutes with Vilela, Bush and Swearengin on election night.
Fans of AOC will find their fondness confirmed, and others probably won’t watch this movie in the first place. But if “Knock Down the House” was supposed to be about the 2018 surge of female candidates, it misses the mark by focusing too much on one of them.
PG. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema; also available via Netflix streaming. Contains strong language, brief smoking and mature thematic elements. 86 minutes.