Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Knock Down the House Is An Inspirational And Humanizing Exploration of American Politics

Let's not sugar-coat it, the last week of American politics has been a particularly vicious form of disheartening, which is saying something given how the last two-and-a-half years have been the physical manifestation of a nightmare. We need an ounce of hope wherever we can get it and goodness knows movies have always functioned as a go-to format for providing stories that offer up some hope to the world in times of crisis. For the Rachel Lears feature film Knock Down the House (which is now streaming on Netflix), hope is offered through a documentary that follows a quarter of female politicians looking to shake the status quo in American politics.

The most heavily chronicled of these four politicians is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York bartender aiming to displace establishment powers in the Hosue of Representatives. Knock Down the House follows Ocasio-Cortez and fellow aspiring Representatives Amy Vilela (from Nevada), Cori Bush (from Missouri) and Paula Jean Swearengin (from West Virginia) as their underdog campaigns get going in the face of immense odds all the way up until the night of voting that will determine if all their ambition will result in them actually winning an election. Along the way, we get to explore who these women are as people and what motivates them in their political crusades.

Though a documentary, Knock Down the House, in the broad strokes, resembles at an inspirational sports movie. Like a typical crowdpleaser sports movie, Knock Down the House brings out underdog protagonists from everyday American settings who are eager to defy the odds and score a victory everybody thinks is impossible to achieve. The various tense election nights that these four ladies experience even comes off like this movies version of the Rocky/Adonis Creed showdown from the original Rocky. Also like a good inspirational sports movie, Knock Down the House is a thrilling movie that'll have you totally invested in the quarter of aspiring politicians it chronicles.

Writer/director Rachel Lears smartly decides to approach its lead characters as individuals the audience may not have any knowledge on beforehand, which means she makes the different obstacles facing the individual characters easy to understand right away. One clearly understands the motivation and backgrounds of these four lead characters through effectively casual means. Instead of cutting away to interviews with swarms of outside figures to provide exposition, Knock Down the House makes a clear choice to have its aspiring politicians speak for themselves in mundane ways that reinforce the homegrown down-to-Earth nature of these figures.

This means background information is provided through footage of the protagonists interacting with townspeople they'd potentially represent, chatting with loved ones, and in the case of Ocasio-Cortez, footage from old home videos. Though we get glimpses of national news footage about these politicians, Knock Down the House primarily keeps its focus intimate, as seen by the visual means in which it conveys personal information about its lead characters.  Going the intimate route turns out to be such a fantastic choice for the film that it's no wonder one gets so emotionally invested in these characters. Another plus of this intimate angle is that Donald Trump is kept entirely off-screen, an unspoken but smart move that centers the focus of Knock Down the House squarely on populations of people he and his administration negatively impact rather than putting the spotlight once again exclusively on powerful corrupt individuals.

All of the assorted stories in Knock Down the House work well at humanizing people in the world of politics, though the large amount of time spent on Ocasio-Cortez did make me wish Vilela, Bush and Swearengin had similarly expansive amounts of time for their interesting subplots. That grievance is somewhat mitigated by how Ocasio-Cortez's story really is fascinating and two of the final sequences in the feature focused on just her (one centered on the results of her election, the other about her recounting a story about her and her late father visiting Washington D.C.) are some of the most moving moments in all of Knock Down the House. If you're looking for a source of heartfelt hope in these tiems that try a person's soul, Knock Down the House should do nicely.

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