In the spirit of our political age, I watched three political documentaries about prominent liberal American politicians (I vote Democrat, for what it’s worth); hagiographies they may be, but they still evince various degrees of insight.
David Modigliani’s Running with Beto (2019) is the most hagiographic of the lot. Following then-El Paso Congressman Beto O’Rourke as he unsuccessfully campaigns for Ted Cruz’s senate seat, the film doesn’t have much to say about Beto’s actual political positions—which is just as well. Instead, the main focus is on Beto the human being, who seems nice and open-minded; his children and wife, the latter somehow agreeing to let Beto run for president despite hating the senate campaign; his top campaign staff, who in one of the film’s two negative moments (the other is of course losing the race) call Beto a stern taskmaster; and a couple of Beto supporters, including the interesting presence of the gun-toting, tough-talking Shannon Gay.
Beto’s a tech-savvy politician, and much footage comes from online campaign events, including snippets of a 24-hour Facebook livestream. The uncritical use of campaign footage is symbolic of the film’s overall problem: The notion that simply following Beto around is worth making a doc out of. In fact, it’s when crafting the film’s antagonist, Ted Cruz, that artistic intent can be felt. I’d love to see a documentary of Cruz, or another incumbent, defending his seat.
The already-viral Knock Down the House (2019), directed by Rachel Lears, is limited in different ways. Though most famous for covering the history-making Democratic primary campaign of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the film is ostensibly about a new political movement in the wake of Trump’s election, and features four political newcomers: AOC, Cori Bush of Missouri, Paula Jean Swearengin of West Virginia, and Amy Vilela of Nevada. The premise is solid, as all four were recruited to run by the grassroots activists of Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats; it’s thus a shame that the connections among the four aren’t explored in any detail. Instead, Robin Blotnick’s editing cuts between the four narratives, de-emphasizing even those times when all four are in the same room. The only time that sense of camaraderie appears is when, after Vilela loses her race, AOC calls her to console and encourage. But the film includes this scene not for the companionship but for the words themselves: “A hundred of us have to run for one to make it through.” (This is despite the fact that the “movement” only successfully drafted twelve candidates, among whom only AOC won.)
The fragmented narrative, written by Lears and Blotnick, creates additional problems. With a 90-minute running time, we only get the bare bones of each candidate’s platform, character, and shape of their campaign. The most lively of the four narratives is AOC’s, probably because her campaign is the only one directed not at a key issue but against an establishment opponent, Joe Crowley. Plus, the candidate herself takes every public opportunity to eloquently express her political passion, not just at events. We also get a feel for her tactical genius when she justifiably critiques a Crowley flier. If only the film had expanded this focus to include the nexus of all four women.
The third film is slightly older, Norah Shapiro’s Time for Ilhan, a 2018 film, which in today’s political climate feels like a decade ago. This is the best doc of the three by dint of its subject matter: Ilhan Omar’s race for state legislator, her first campaign. As subject matters go it’s a good choice: The district is urban and geographically small enough to wrap one’s head around; Omar’s main opponent is another establishment figure, Phyllis Kahn (who’s White), but the role of villain is given to third candidate Mohamud Noor, who’s also Somali-American but refuses to help Ilhan when his prospects look bleak; and the personal interest is intrinsically tied to the political aspect, as Noor’s presence raises the question of patriarchal views in the Somali-American community.
In contrast to this great premise is the bad luck of the filmmakers, for Omar wins her election on the same night that Trump does his. The two campaigns don’t really engage each other (Omar is an extreme underdog after all; even Noor has run before), so Trump’s presence in the film, though foreshadowed in the third quarter, feels sudden and inorganic. Even worse (for the film if not for Omar or the country), Omar goes on to win a seat in Congress in 2018, so the film has to hurriedly sketch that year’s wave of political novices who aren’t White men, most of whom basically ran on an anti-Trump platform. Emotionally, it feels extraneous and drawn-out, a strained effort to end on an unambiguous high note.
Finally, Time for Ilhan is perhaps the most honest doc of the three because at one point, when Omar’s opponents (falsely) accuse her of bigamy and immigration fraud, on-screen titles tell us that the campaign barred the documentary film crew from filming the campaign itself; before Omar releases a statement explaining what really went down, the film can only rely on news reports and friends of friends. In revealing an act of distancing, the film gains our trust.
Editor’s note: This piece has been published at Critics at Large.