By providing a ground-floor seat to the start of the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez phenomenon, “Knock Down the House” feels like an extended window into a moment in history. That fortuitous twist, however, risks overshadowing the documentary’s larger message, which essentially serves as a rallying cry to brave elected politics, emphasizing that AOC is the notable exception, not the rule.
Directed and co-written by Rachel Lears, the movie – which sold to Netflix for a reported $10 million at the Sundance Film Festival – meticulously chronicles several Democratic activists mounting challenges to well-established incumbents.
While Ocasio-Cortez understandably garners the lion’s share of screen time, her experience is cast in the context of a movement, with the filmmakers spending time with other contenders – Cori Bush, Amy Vilela and Paula Jean Swearengin, each with their own stories – in Missouri, Nevada and West Virginia, respectively.
The Darwinian lesson, as a consequence, takes time to come into focus, and is specifically articulated by Ocasio-Cortez near the end, when she observes as a note of consolation, “It’s just the reality that in order for one of us to make it through, a hundred of us have to try.”
Perhaps what “Knock Down the House” does best, in that context, is highlight the enormous odds that Ocasio-Cortez had to overcome, as well as the dismissive nature of her opponent, the congressional veteran Joe Crowley.
The documentary crew follows Ocasio-Cortez going door to door and attends sparsely attended events. It also captures the in-hindsight-devastating moment when Crowley dispatched a surrogate to a campaign debate, a sign of how little significance he attached to the notion of a 20-something running against him.
Yet if “Knock Down the House” sheds light on the energy and idealism that Ocasio-Cortez and others brought to their campaigns, it simultaneously makes clear the hurdles that such campaigns face, beginning with what Corbin Trent of Justice Democrats refers to as “the corrupting influence of money in politics.”
The fact that the film gets to include a climactic “thrill of victory” sequence – that iconic image of Ocasio-Cortez, wide-eyed and with her hand clamped over her mouth, upon realizing that she’d won the primary – in a way thus belies what’s at its core.
Ocasio-Cortez might be a rising star in US politics, but the takeaway from “Knock Down the House,” ultimately, is that her improbable victory was just the first round of a fight – a key brick in rocking a much bigger foundation.
“Knock Down the House” premieres May 1 on Netflix and in select theaters.