Rachel Lears’ breakout Netflix documentary feature Knock Down the House, which premiered at Sundance in 2019, followed four aspiring progressive U.S. politicians, all women, who had just been running for office in the 2018 election cycle. Thanks to either sheer luck or very canny documentary casting on Lears’ part, one of the four was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), the only one to win her race, a blissful moment Lear caught on camera that soon went viral.
From there, AOC went from being an activist/part-time bartender to arguably the most recognizable first-term congresswoman in the country. Chock full of intimate, compelling moments of candor from its subjects, House made for inspirational viewing. A lot of its success was tied to the specific time it came out, just after the left’s successes in the 2018 midterms jimmied open a chink of light in the darkness that was the Trump administration. For left-wing viewers, watching House was like seeing a political-documentary version of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope except with Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia in one white pants-suited package.
To the End
Look left in anger.
A few years have passed and now Lears delivers, again with a Sundance premiere, To the End, a sequel of sorts to Knock Down the House in that it once again features heroine Ocasio-Cortez plus a whole new trio of activists hoping to make a difference on the political landscape. This time the focus is the climate crisis, and each of the activists featured — AOC, Varshini Prakash from the youth-driven Sunrise Movement, Alexandra Rojas from action group Justice Democrats, and Rhiana Gunn-Wright of the Roosevelt Institute and co-author of the Green New Deal policy document — are trying to pass legislation that will combat that crisis. But the right is fighting back, and the alliance on the left is riven with squabbling factions even though time is running out and the stakes have never seemed higher.
The doc ends roughly toward the end of 2021, with President Biden’s Build Back Better Act passing by a squeak through the House, destined to fail in the Senate. If House was A New Hope, this is The Empire Strikes Back, a well-made but ambivalent bridging narrative that leaves the viewer feeling even more worried about the future of the planet, let alone democracy.
The film’s opening quote from Antonio Gramsci, “The crisis consists of just this: The old world is dying and the new world cannot quite be born. In the meantime, all kinds of dreadful things are happening,” is apt indeed — especially that last bit about “dreadful things.” One of those very things features here in the shape of Joe Manchin, the senator from West Virginia whom Paula Jean Swearengin tried unsuccessfully to unseat in Knock Down the House. Here he’s seen on a clip from Fox News refusing to support the Build Back Better Act, with its raft of green legislation, and insisting that, why no, it has nothing to do with his personal ties to the coal industry. The women featured in the film, along with us, the audience, can only look on in despair.
Due to the fact that the canvas is broader this time around — and the subjects Lears has chosen to focus on don’t have four discreet, parallel narratives that we can see through to the end — there’s inevitably less coherence to this film strictly in terms of storytelling. Instead, each of these women is trying to make a difference in the climate crisis in very specific ways, but for all of them history keeps interfering. Each of the women is a person of color, and while at first that’s not really in the foreground, the issue of race inflects their stories as the murder of George Floyd sparks protests across the country, right at the same time that a pandemic is raging. Inevitably, there’s a lot of footage here of our subjects watching and reacting to the news.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially when the subjects we’re watching have interesting things to say about what they’re watching. For example, there’s a sequence where the ferociously astute and articulate Gunn-Wright dissects an oil industry lobbyist’s lies and obfuscations in a video clip. The scene immediately brings to mind AOC’s similar semiotics-savvy dissection of her opponent’s campaign pamphlet in House.
Elsewhere, we see Rojas bridling at the way then-still-running-for-president Elizabeth Warren talks about climate policy (Rojas is a fervent Bernie Sanders supporter), a moment that underscores the fissures on the left. Also, given Rojas is seen frequently appearing as a commentator on CNN, there’s a slight sense that this risks becoming a bit inside baseball with so much footage of media figures and politicians sniping about other media figures and politicians. Indeed, there’s a bit of irritation expressed with “the mainstream media” and its handling of the Green New Deal, as if this film isn’t itself part of that larger media-mediated conversation.
The scenes that follow Sunrise Movement protestor Prakash and her friends at least point the camera at the grassroots of the fight for the planet’s future. Barely more than kids, full of ideals and plenty of moxie, many of them are willing to risk their health with hunger strikes and other sacrifices to get their point across.
It seems so unfair that they keep trying when the media landscape is so hideously crowded with other news. Still, one can’t help but admire their willingness to keep going and not give up. After all, there’s an even younger generation coming up behind them, represented by Gunn-Wright’s own adorable newborn, even more at risk of inheriting an uninhabitable earth.