From the moment she unexpectedly knocked off an entrenched incumbent congressman who represented an safe Democratic district in New York City, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez became an almost-mythic figure in U.S. politics. The 29-year-old who now represents the Bronx and Queens in the House is a champion tweeter, the scourge of Trump administration officials testifying on Capitol Hill, and a rent-free tenant in the heads of everyone at Fox News.
The Ocasio-Cortez in Rachel Lears’ new documentary, Knock Down the House, isn’t quite there yet, but like any good backstory, the roots are visible.
Lears’ film, which begins streaming on Netflix today and opens this week for a limited theatrical run, opens on Ocasio-Cortez not long after she launched her campaign to unseat Joe Crowley, a ten-term House member known better for being the Wall Street-friendly boss of the Queens Democratic machine than his constituent services.
When we first see her here, Ocasio-Cortez has just launched her long-shot campaign and is still commuting from the Bronx to pull double shifts at a Manhattan bar. But Lears doesn’t hide that her congressional bid, while scrappy, was still very calculated.
Not long after we see Ocasio-Cortez hauling buckets of ice and mixing cocktails, Lears jumps back in time to the organizers of Brand New Congress, a group of disappointed Bernie Sanders supporters looking for neophytes to upend the Democratic establishment in the wake of the party’s shocking 2016 failures. The group forms much of the film’s background cast—indeed, several of them have gone on to work for Ocasio-Cortez’s office.
But while these activists are impressed with her, she’s far from a sure thing (and I wouldn’t mind seeing the movie about how they found each other). Still, it’s clear the once and future AOC is a natural at this: “New York isn’t Democrats versus Republicans,” she says at one point, explaining the Empire State’s politics. “It’s establishment versus some stray cat who thinks they can take on the establishment.”
From there, Lears shows Ocasio-Cortez ascend, from her instantly notorious first “debate” with Crowley, in which the incumbent sent a low-level surrogate in his place to square off with her at a sleepy community center to the thrilling moment of her upset win.
But there are plenty of moments that show the toll the race takes on her. While we know Rep. Ocasio-Cortez for her rousing campaign speeches, fiery hearing questions, and candid Instagram live streams, Candidate Ocasio-Cortez turns bashful when knocking on doors for the first time. It’s easier, she says, to talk to big rooms than it is to a single person. The result is an arc of uncertainty, confidence, and almost Knope-ian swells that know exactly which buttons to push in its intended audience of fired-up lefties.
Yet Knock Down the House is more than an AOC origin story. Lears mixes Ocasio-Cortez’s rise with the campaigns of three other Brand New Congress candidates around the country. And they’re sometimes more compelling than the future congresswoman. One, Amy Vilela, has suffered real horror in her family and chucked away a stable corporate career to pursue a House seat in Nevada. Then there’s Paula Jean Swearengin, who can pick out the families in her West Virginia neighborhood that’ve been ravaged by the cancerous effects of the destructive coal industry protected by Sen. Joe Manchin. Cori Bush, a nurse and pastor from the St. Louis area, turns her passion from the Ferguson riots into a race for a congressional office that’s been held by a single family for nearly 50 years. We see the beginning and ends of their campaigns, but few parts in the middle that explain how effective organizing gets done.
Lears can’t be faulted for returning to Ocasio-Cortez so often, though. Of the film’s four candidates, she’s the most charismatic, most famous, and—importantly—actually won. It doesn’t take too much astuteness to know that nearly all incumbents are renominated by their parties, and the hackiest political observers will gleefully point out that other than AOC, Brand New Congress’ 2018 candidates went down to defeat.
But Knock Down the House is not about one person getting lucky in a sea of futility. It’s about lighting a fire when the status quo, even if it claims to be nominally on your side, isn’t good enough. Why try at all in the face of such long odds? As Ocasio-Cortez puts it shortly before her triumph, “The alternative is no one.”