Netflix’s Ocasio-Cortez Film ‘Knock Down the House’ Is a Total Winner

This terrific new Netflix documentary takes you behind the scenes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s against-all-odds triumph in New York in 2018

Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in Netflix documentary "Knock Down the House."
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in Netflix documentary "Knock Down the House."Credit: Netflix
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan

So, who will you be backing when Ivanka Trump runs against Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2028? One thing is for sure: Ivanka had better pray no one is still watching the Netflix documentary “Knock Down the House” in nine years’ time, otherwise she’ll be lucky to claim as many states as poor old Walter Mondale managed back in 1984.

Put simply, “Knock Down the House” (which drops Wednesday, May 1) is a feel-good political documentary — and that’s a phrase you don’t get to say every day.

Ultimately, it serves as a ringing endorsement for the third-generation — and ever-so-slightly Jewish — Bronxite who came from nowhere last year to oust Rep. Joe Crowley (who at the time was the fourth most powerful person in the Democratic Party). She now represents New York’s 14th District in the House of Representatives, and you have undoubtedly seen her all over your Twitter feed and scoring points for fun off Republicans (and some Dems) in Congress.

Netflix paid $10 million for the rights to “Knock Down the House” after it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January — the kind of fee normally reserved for sensitive indie movies about transitioning dolphins — and it’s not hard to see why.

'Knock Down the House' trailer

For anyone with even the slightest interest in the seismic changes occurring in American politics, this is a must-see film. And for anyone who hasn’t followed the AOC phenomenon, this is the perfect opportunity to understand what all the fuss is about.

After watching this breezy and surprisingly moving 87-minute film, you are left in little doubt that Ocasio-Cortez is the real (not-so-green) deal, a powerhouse politician both of the people and for the people.

Officially, “Knock Down the House” is not a starring vehicle for the 29-year-old New York representative — but that’s true only in the same way that “Wonder Woman” was not originally expected to be such a game-changer for Gal Gadot.

From the first frame to the last, this is 100 percent “The AOC Show,” as director Rachel Lears follows the rookie — spoiler alert for anyone who has never seen Fox News — on her unlikely route to D.C. She is also the only one of the four female wannabe politicians here who gets her back story told in detail — including footage of her singing as a kid (already the cause of much derision from AOC-haters) and a video in which several of her teeth appear to be residing in different Zip codes. Whatever you think of her, you will never confuse AOC’s blue-collar upbringing with that of Ivanka’s.

In many ways this is the Latina version of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” but in place of James Stewart we have an aspirational young waitress who proves that the phrase “Natural Born Politician” does not necessarily have to be pejorative.

Watching “Knock Down the House” (and is it just me that thinks the title sounds more like a Kevin Hart comedy than a political documentary?) is to be reminded that, as Donald Trump never said, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose (seriously, the guy struggles enough with “Origins”; can you imagine him with French?).

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in Netflix documentary "Knock Down the House."Credit: Netflix

Remarkable access

The medium may have moved from the radio and network television to cable television and social media, but it soon becomes clear that nothing works better in politics than actually hitting the sidewalk and taking your message directly to the people — something AOC and, it must be said, the White House supremacist are both remarkably adept at.

Lears scores remarkable access to AOC, which shows just how much of an outsider the Democratic nobody was when filming began in April 2017: If her political star continues to rise in the coming years (and Nancy Pelosi may have something to say about that), this film will serve as a remarkable insight into her tentative first steps on the campaign trail. It also offers scenes away from the hustings in which she spends time with her family and at home in her reassuringly poky New York apartment with her sensitive-sounding (and distinctly ginger) boyfriend.

Sound bites trip from AOC’s mouth like chicken nugget crumbs from Trump’s (“Big Money is very lonely, and we’ve got people on our side”; “Everyday Americans deserve to be represented by everyday Americans”; “They call it ‘working class’ for a reason — because you are working nonstop”), and this documentary is not afraid to provide her with a soapbox for those views. This is filmmaking every bit as partisan as the works of Dinesh “Death of a Nation” D'Souza, but it also offers fresh insight into some of the people working to upend traditional politics (but no, George Soros does not make a cameo appearance).

You’ve got to feel sorry for the other three women featured in the documentary, since they are all effectively pushed to the margins when AOC’s campaign gathers momentum and her star wattage becomes glaringly apparent. I would have happily spent more time with each of them, although their presence here does amplify the fact that being “authentic” and not part of the establishment doesn’t actually carry much weight with voters in and of itself.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with her young niece in Netflix documentary "Knock Down the House."Credit: Netflix

Of the three others — and obviously, the less you know about their political fates, the more enjoyable the journey becomes as they head to the 2018 primaries — the most fascinating is Nevadan Democrat Amy Vilela, a forthright fortysomething prone to statements like “They’re actually now posting that I’m a Marxist. I don’t even know what a Marxist is.”

Her back story is particularly moving, but then, all of the women featured — the others are Cori Bush, a registered nurse and ordained pastor standing in Missouri’s 1st District; and Paula Jean Swearengen, who is literally a coal miner’s daughter running for a Senate seat in West Virginia — are well chosen subjects with their own unique stories and qualifications for office/greater viewing time.

There were moments when I wanted the film to widen its focus, emerge from its cosy little bubble and show us the other side of the fight — the well-oiled, Wall Street and Big Pharma-backed ones rather than the shoestring operations we follow — and see how they were waging their battles against this new breed of anti-career-politics politician. But otherwise, I found this a captivating yet modest film that deserves the widest possible audience.

AOC also proves remarkably good company and is not averse to a bit of self-mockery (like when she complains how her voice always seems to rise two octaves when she tries to be polite to someone).

Documentaries such as “Knock Down the House,” last year’s Oscar-nominated “RBG” and two acclaimed new films that have just premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival — “Slay the Dragon,” about the fight to counter GOP gerrymandering; and “After Parkland,” which follows several survivors of last year’s Florida high school shooting — suggest that filmmakers covering liberal causes are becoming increasingly adept at getting their messages out there to counter the D’Souzas and fellow delusional documentarians on the right.

A Message From the Future

Hopefully Netflix will at some point reveal how popular “Knock Down the House” is with viewers, and whether it manages to lure some of the millions of people who have viewed AOC’s “Message From the Future” video on The Intercept website to watch a fairly conventional political documentary. One thing is for sure: Trump’s lackeys at Fox News, and maybe even Ivanka Trump herself, will be watching very closely.

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