Meet the new political doc stars, from Beto to AOC
America — narratively speaking — loves a winner. Our most popular films feature reluctant but ultimately triumphant heroes (Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games) and scrappy underdogs who slay giants (just about every Star Wars movie).
But two of the buzziest feature documentaries of 2019, Running With Beto (on HBO May 28) and Knock Down the House (on Netflix May 1), are largely about big swings and misses — and yet still manage to be as compelling as their fictional Hollywood counterparts.
What’s even more unexpected is how the stories play out. With a presumed core audience — politically aware, left-leaning types who already know how the campaigns ended — these films are still fundamentally optimistic. And in a media sphere dominated by cable news points of view, each project manages to separate church and state: the filmmakers’ creative decision-making vs. the charismatic candidates — and staff who allow access to them.
“Every minute that that your candidate spends talking to a documentary crew before election day is time wasted not gathering votes,” says Pod Save America co-host Tommy Vietor, who appeared in a campaign doc while working as Barack Obama’s Iowa press secretary during the 2008 election.
Even once allowed in, for fly-on-the-wall documentarians, the challenge in filming a political candidate is slogging through repetitive stump speeches while finding the fleeting interactions that expose the most human moments.
For David Modigliani’s Running With Beto, which tracks Beto O’Rourke’s marathon effort to visit all 254 Texas counties and unseat Ted Cruz for Senate in the 2018 midterms, it started with casting the right subject. “I think anyone who has seen him speak in person [feels] a unique magnetism,” the director says of O’Rourke, now 46, who was a relatively unknown congressman from El Paso before the events chronicled in the film. “Our plan A always was ‘He has a chance, but let’s face it, he’s most likely to lose.’ ”
Either could largely be supported with the same set-up. “The growing traction of the campaign, the energy that blooms behind them, the moments of frustration,” Modigliani ticks off. The last 15 minutes, he estimated, would be the wild card — to a point. “Unless he had lost badly, ultimately this was going to be a hopeful, inspirational film.”
Because O’Rourke’s chances seemed so long, the Running With Beto elevator pitch relied heavily on the example set by Street Fight, Marshall Curry’s 2005 doc that followed Cory Booker’s first bid for Newark mayor.
“Running a campaign is about managing an image and a message,” Curry explains. But “Cory just said, ‘I think I’m a good person. I think any exposure will only help us.’” One piece of exposure he didn’t count on: Booker’s chief of staff getting caught at a strip club. Curry was barred from the emergency staff meeting, and so he filmed the closed door, reality-show-style, while describing in voiceover what had happened.
“It is not the film that his campaign would have made,” Curry says. “So was [Booker] naive in his confidence? Yes, probably. But in the end, he was also right, and the movie certainly has helped him.” Though Booker lost that first mayoral race in 2002, he was victorious in 2006; the film was nominated for an Academy Award.
Vietor, who grew up with Modigliani and is a co-executive producer on Running With Beto, is pragmatic about how both cameras and politics play a similarly clarifying role. “You can’t fake who you are on a campaign trail. You can’t fake who you are on a documentary. It’s going to come out one way or the other.” Ultimately, it’s up to the candidate. “If Beto doesn’t want to be mic’d up, he’s not mic’d up,” Vietor says. “The issue is not that your candidate would say something horrible and career-ending, it’s that it would be f—ing boring.”
O’Rourke, a former punk rocker and computer hacker, is hardly boring, and if anything the film could benefit from more face-time with the charismatic candidate. Modigliani shot more than 700 hours of footage with O’Rourke, his family, key campaign staff, and a trio of first-time volunteers. Two editors began assembling a rough cut six months out from Election Day, which helped Modigliani zoom in on any missing pieces even as the hordes of press following O’Rourke swelled, as did the crowds.
But no matter how clear-eyed and full-hearted he was, O’Rourke ultimately lost his bid for the Senate, dropping an F-bomb of thanks to his supporters on live national TV and then, as the film reveals, going home to make quesadillas with his wife and kids, slowly beginning to process what might come next. Running With Beto won the SXSW Film Festival’s audience award in mid-March; that very same week, O’Rourke was on the cover of Vanity Fair, officially announced his campaign, and quickly leapfrogged from Texas to Iowa to glad-hand caucus voters. Now the doc essentially serves as a prequel to a presidential run.
Knock Down the House, which won an audience award at the Sundance Film Festival before Netflix nabbed it in a bidding war in February, also plays like a prequel of sorts — one with the most prescient casting of another rising Democratic-party star.
Director Rachel Lears (The Hand That Feeds) followed four women campaigning against fellow Democrats, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who at the time of production was an unknown waitress from the Bronx — but is now arguably the party’s biggest breakout, complete with a J. Lo-level acronym (just call her AOC).
Lears shot Ocasio-Cortez for more than a year as she took on New York’s Rep. Joe Crowley, the Democrat incumbent also known as “the Queens Machine,” capturing her earliest introductions to local politics — from collecting signatures required to get on the ballot to learning how to canvass door-to-door (“What do you say?” she whispers to one organizer just before they buzz up to an apartment).
Ocasio-Cortez is a doc maker’s dream character, confident and vulnerable, with a fiery wit and a gift for succinct mic-drop summaries of complex policy, even as she’s hauling buckets full of ice across the taqueria where she bartends. “My experience in hospitality has prepared me so well for this race,” Ocasio-Cortez says early on in the film. “I’m used to being on my feet 18 hours a day. I’m used to people trying to make me feel bad.”
“She really is who she says she is,” Lears says. The film includes old home movies of a buck-toothed girl who delivers a fake news report about an alien invasion. “Even from when she was a kid, she was really playing around with cameras a lot,” Lears says. “She has a comfort level from a very young age.”
In another telling moment, on her tiny couch in her tiny Bronx apartment, critiques a glossy mailer from Crowley’s campaign before turning to the camera with a deadpan stare, Jim Halpert-style. Later she gives herself a pep talk in advance of a live televised debate. The then-28-year-old candidate spreads her arms wide. “I need to take up space,” she says, before launching into an Oprah-esque affirmation. “I can do this. I am experienced enough to do this. I am knowledgeable enough to do this. I am prepared enough to do this. I am mature enough to do this. I am brave enough to do this.”
To capture such candid scenes, Lears employs her background in anthropology to build deep trust with her subjects. “I don’t think a moment like that would’ve happened if it was the first time I asked to film in [her] apartment,” Lears says. “I knew if I could just arrange to be in that place at that time, something great would happen.”
Lears’ determination to shoot the majority of the film herself required careful planning when casting the film’s three other House candidates; no two could have primaries on the same night, for example. Like Ocasio-Cortes, the other contenders were vetted, supported, and introduced to each other by advocacy groups working to bring outsider voices into politics.
After Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, Cori Bush, a registered nurse, went down to the protests to provide medical assistance. “I was not trying to become an activist,” Bush says in the film. “It was like a battle zone.” She was inspired to challenge Rep. Lacy Clay, who has represented St. Louis since 2001, when his father retired from the same seat after 32 years.
Amy Vilela, a Nevada businesswoman whose campaign is centered on a pledge to pass Medicare for All, breaks down sobbing as she talks about how her 22-year-old daughter died after being denied medical tests because she couldn’t show proof of health insurance. “I’m not going to allow my daughter to have died for nothing,” she says.
Ultimately, though, Vilela, Bush, and Paula Jean Swearengin — a coal miner’s daughter from West Virginia who went up against conservative Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin — all lose their elections, and not by a little. They prove to be the rule, not the exception: in real life, and especially politics, underdogs usually don’t win.
Knock Down the House has one character who does. On a phone call to Vilela after the Nevada defeat, Ocasio-Cortez says, “It’s just the reality that in order for one of us to make it through, 100 of us have to try.”
This persistence of these films’ characters even in the wake of defeat feels deep and genuine, like the beginning of their own long stories and not the end. Bush has already begun campaigning for Congress in 2020. Among the featured volunteers in Running With Beto is Shannon Gay, a tattooed former military wife whose foulmouthed screeds about “arrogant f—wits” like Cruz are far more biting than O’Rourke’s earnest outsider rhetoric. (Two talent agencies have already reached out to express interest in Gay, according to Modigliani.) Another O’Rourke surrogate, the 17-year-old gun safety advocate Marcel McClinton, is now running for Houston city council.
But in docs, as it is in movies in general, creative success is ultimately about drilling into the right story: the right characters, the right plot, the right conflicts and angle, win or lose.
Curry, who has shot off and on with Booker since Street Fight came out in 2005, has a closet full of hard drives of unseen footage. He was there for the Feb. 1 announcement of Booker’s presidential bid and has been in talks with the politician’s staff about a Street Fight sequel.
The main impediment for the director now isn’t access so much as finding the compelling story. “It’s one thing if it’s two people against each other and your candidate’s either gonna win or lose,” Curry says. “But if your candidate comes in sixth place in Iowa, and sixth place in New Hampshire, and then drops out, what is that? Can you make a movie out of that? I’m not sure.”