Imagine focusing a camera when Lyndon Johnson began pressing Texas flesh, or being on the scene when Abraham Lincoln started out in Illinois. That same excitement of present-at-the-creation political discovery powers “Knock Down the House,” and no wonder.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York has not always been the most talked about new member of Congress. She hasn’t always been so well known that simply using her initials — AOC — conjures either delight or despair somewhere on the political spectrum.
Once, 18 months before her audacious primary challenge to a high-ranking member of the Democratic establishment, she was a bartender schlepping ice from a restaurant basement, an unknown woman putting on makeup in a tiny bathroom mirror and asking, “How do you prepare yourself for something you don’t know is coming?”
To create a successful documentary film it’s at least as important to be lucky as it is to be good, and director Rachel Lears has been both. By being there at the start of what has already become a legendary career, she captured lightning in a bottle and now shows us the very genuine person behind the media firestorm.
“Knock Down the House” did not begin as a film focused on Ocasio-Cortez and it is officially billed as something else: a look at four different and compelling women, each of whom mounted a grassroots primary challenge to an entrenched incumbent.
In truth, each of the other three women Lears follows as they campaign for the 2018 midterms has a fascinating story:
Cori Bush, a registered nurse and ordained pastor galvanized by the events in Ferguson to run in Missouri. “The time is always right,” she says, “to do right.”
Paula Jean Swearengin, “a coal miner’s daughter and mad as hell,” who took on conservative Democrat and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin.
Amy Vilela sold her house and went into debt to run for the House in Las Vegas after her daughter died due to a hospital situation that a strong healthcare system might have prevented.
All these women, as well as Ocasio-Cortez, were recruited to run by the groups Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, both dedicated to giving representation to the working class by finding an alternative path to Congress for non-career politicians.
Ocasio-Cortez, who was brought to the groups’ attention by her brother, was in fact working in a restaurant when she was approached.
“The hospitality business is great experience for a politician,” she explains early on. “You’re on your feet 18 hours a day and you’re used to people trying to make you feel bad.”
One reason Ocasio-Cortez features so prominently in “Knock Down the House” is an accident of geography.
Filmmaker Lears lives in Brooklyn, and because the project didn’t have a lot of funding early on, spending time with a fellow New Yorker — in fact getting Ocasio-Cortez on film more than a year before her historic primary victory — made economic sense.
It also becomes clear that the factors that led to AOC’s upset victory are the same ones that make her the inevitable focus of a film that is nominally a group portrait.
Smart, impassioned and candid, with the grace of always being herself, she dominates this film just as she ended up dominating incumbent Joseph Crowley — who looks like he never knew what hit him despite being a veteran pol with 20 years in Congress.
Ocasio-Cortez comes increasingly alive in “Knock Down the House,” which also introduces her supportive boyfriend Riley Roberts and mother Blanca, who poignantly worries about her daughter’s safety.
She becomes savvy about the political landscape, a quick study who explains why she needs to gather 10,000 signatures to get on the ballot even though the law only requires 1,250.
It all comes together on election night, as Lears shadows Ocasio-Cortez and captures her disbelief as she nears her post-election party and suddenly realizes she has in fact won. It’s precisely the kind of you-are-there moment, one of many, that makes “Knock Down the House” so satisfying.
‘Knock Down the House’
Rated: PG for thematic elements, language and brief smoking
Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes
Playing: Opens Wednesday at the Landmark, West Los Angeles, and on Netflix