‘Knock Down the House’
Playing in the U.S. Documentary competition of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Running time: 86 minutes. Next screenings: Tuesday, Jan. 29, 8:30 a.m., Prospector Square Theatre, Park City; Thursday, Jan. 31, 11:30 a.m., The MARC Theatre, Park City; Thursday, Feb. 1, 9 p.m., Redstone Cinema 1, Park City; Friday, Feb. 2, 3:30 p.m.
The underdog election of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may have been a good thing for the Democratic Party, and maybe even for democracy itself, but it sure has an unbalancing effect on Rachel Lears’ otherwise engrossing documentary “Knock Down the House.”
Learn began the project by following four insurgent Democratic candidates who bucked the party establishment and ran in primaries against long-entrenched Republicans. Ocasio-Cortez is one, and her victory in New York’s 14th district over incumbent Joe Crowley becomes the through line that energizes this documentary. Watching Ocasio-Cortez in the film, wrestling with doubts before she became a congressional media star and scourge of condescending conservatives, is quite delightful.
But the focus on Ocasio-Cortez, though easily defensible from a journalistic view, shortchanges the other three women profiled. Amy Vilela in Nevada started with a single issue, Medicare for all, after her daughter died from a pulmonary embolism that might have been prevented if the hospital hadn’t refused blood tests because she had no proof of insurance. Paula Jean Swearengin, who challenged Sen. Joe Manchin in West Virginia, decries the decades that the coal industry has destroyed mountains and poisoned drinking water without consequences. And in Missouri, Cori Bush, an activist in the district that covers Ferguson, tries to unseat Rep. Clay Lacy, whose family — Clay and his father, William, before him — has held the seat since the 1960s.
Lears gets some great in-the-moment footage, no better than Ocasio-Cortez’ reaction when the vote totals came in. She also brings focus to the two activist groups, Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, who recruited and supported insurgent candidates nationwide. One just wishes there was more of Bush, Swearengin and Vilela to make it a party.