On May 1, Netflix released “Knock Down the House,” a documentary directed by Rachel Lears that follows four women as they challenge Democratic incumbents in primary elections for the United States Congress.
Lears’ crew follows Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Amy Vilela, Cori Bush and Paula Jean Swearengin as they vie for Congress with the support of Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats, two political organizations focused on getting more progressive Democrats in office.
The film takes a “fly on the wall” approach to these women’s campaigns, with no third-party narration and very little supplemental information. The stories of their political struggles are told almost exclusively through personal interviews, intimate looks at canvassing and campaign staff meetings.
These elements work well for “Knock Down the House.” While their policy platforms are discussed throughout the film, the candidates’ personalities are what shine through. The film does an effective job of portraying the campaigns as a struggle between political insiders and working-class outsiders, and the intimate, casual interactions we see from each candidate highlight that.
However, the documentary is not without its flaws. Most notably, the personal narrative approach that serves the film so well is left to stand on its own, creating a one-note style that grows monotonous as the film goes on. With little sense of context in the larger election, the middle of the film meanders in refrains of David and Goliath mantras while footage of pensive car rides and subway trips play ad nauseam.
Despite this, there are genuinely impactful moments. Watching Ocasio-Cortez debate a surrogate for her primary opponent who couldn’t be bothered to attend a town hall meeting is powerful. It exudes the frustration and fiery passion for change the film is so desperate to convey to its audience.
Once all is said and done, only Ocasio-Cortez wins her primary. As we now know, she was set to take the political world by storm— something that is evident from the way her story effortlessly carries the majority of the screen time. Despite the seemingly bleak outcome with only a quarter of our underdog protagonists taking office, Ocasio-Cortez swoops in with a powerful story about her father in the epilogue to give hope for the future.
Ultimately, hope is what this documentary set out to convey, albeit without much creativity. If the filmmakers had varied their approach or spent more time on the “how” and not just the “why” of these political campaigns, this could have been a truly phenomenal movie. As it stands, there is a lot that was done right, and it achieves its goal of creating excitement for the next installment of rebellious outsiders taking on the establishment.