I binge-watched 9 campaign documentaries, from 'Knock Down the House' to 'Running with Beto' - here's what I learned

This image released by Netflix shows Paula Jean Swearingen, left, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a scene from the documentary "Knock Down the House," premiering May 1 on Netflix. (Netflix via AP)

How perfectly 2019 it is that one of the most euphoric moments you'll witness from a movie character all year involves Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

She was challenging a 10-term New York congressman. An internal poll had her 35 points behind. The three other candidates featured in the film - Netflix's new documentary "Knock Down the House" - have lost. The night of her primary election, she's scared to walk into the party. But as she approaches the door, she hears faint cheers. She busts past the bouncer and into a mob of screaming supporters and spots the screen showing her up by 14 points. She shrieks and covers her face, and braces herself against a news anchor as she realizes what she's done.

When you want a cathartic cry at the movies, you don't usually think, "How about a political campaign documentary?" And yet, at the screening I attended of "Knock Down the House," I could hear the sobs, not from sadness but from the improbable becoming possible, and the rush of seeing one 29-year-old go from waitress to congresswoman in 86 minutes.

I've been bingeing past entries in the genre - as well as HBO's upcoming "Running with Beto" - in the weeks since, to understand how they can elicit such emotion, amid the handshakes and yard signs and fundraising calls and ill-fitting suits. These films have built-in goals and obstacles for the hero (or anti-hero, depending on your political persuasion), while deconstructing the mix of confidence and crazy that makes someone want to do this. But the appeal also comes from watching a person become a celebrity, one with the same flaws as the rest of us, who tries not to forget where they came from.

The genre has a surprising amount in common with movies such as "The American President" and even "Notting Hill" that find a strange power in plebes mixing with the famous: A highlight of the Cory Booker doc "Street Fight" (available on Netflix) comes as the 2002 Newark mayoral candidate goes door to door and a young girl from the neighborhood grabs his hand as they cross the street. "Smell my hands," she shouts to the camera afterward. "He smells like the future."

Marshall Curry's 2005 Oscar nominee is my favorite of the bunch, as it's a thought experiment in whether merit can beat a political machine. It catches the incumbent, Sharpe James, intimidating Booker-supportive businesses and outright lying, calling Booker Jewish and inflating his fundraising numbers to help cast him as a pawn of the powerful.

"Running with Beto," which premieres May 28, is also about a 2020 candidate (Beto O'Rourke) facing an incumbent (Senator Ted Cruz), who derides the upstart's flashiness and fundraising numbers as a sign of inauthenticity. The best moments show Beto as all too human - frustrated with his staff and hanging out with (or missing) his family. His wife recalls how she was "crying and crying" when he told her he would run for Senate, and his son leaves him a sad voice mail that says, "Hi, Daddy, I hope you can call me soon."

But David Modigliani's film doesn't have the magic of "Knock Down the House" or "Street Fight" - perhaps because the road tripping and social media videos start to feel gimmicky, or because the Beto myth now verges on Icarus, especially as his presidential campaign has plateaued.

D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus' "The War Room" from 1993 (for rent on Amazon or iTunes) benefits from ditching the candidate (Bill Clinton '92). It instead becomes a "West Wing"-esque exaltation of the people behind-the-scenes, solidifying the household name status of James Carville and George Stephanopoulos (who's seen appearing on "This Week," which he now hosts). The fun comes from seeing Carville's inability to escape his own mischievousness and colorful humor, despite the grandness of the task: About Clinton avoiding the Vietnam War, he says, "Every time someone farts the word 'draft' it's on the front page." The payoff comes in his thank-you speech to the campaign staff, when his bluster collapses as he breaks down. A telling point of comparison is Alicia Sams and Amy Rice's "By the People" (2009), about Barack Obama's 2008 campaign, in which staffers such as David Axelrod and Jon Favreau are amusing at times but aren't as unguarded.

In contrast to some of these "anointed one" narratives, "Mitt" and "Weiner" are all about futility. Both titles are names but also other nouns - an inanimate object and an all-too-animate one, respectively - hinting at how politicians' identities get simplified into a label, and how both candidates use self-deprecation as a defense mechanism.

In Greg Whiteley's 2014 Netflix doc, Mitt Romney laments how he'll be known as "the flipping Mormon." He says of losing presidential candidates, "They become a loser for life. It's over. Mike Dukakis can't get a job mowing lawns." The pleasure comes from these tongue-in-cheek scenes that penetrate his family's image of sincerity and politeness. When he goes around the room asking his kids if he should run, a son argues that "you have a duty to your country and to God to see what comes of it." Later, on election night, another son is so jumpy that he recruits his brother to slap him in the face.

In "Weiner" (from 2016, free on Hulu), disgraced congressman Anthony Weiner makes another run for New York mayor in 2013, only to see new extramarital sexts leak out. Suddenly, he's battling the press, his wife (who calls the campaign "a living nightmare"), his staffers ("I'm extremely frustrated with your lack of clarity with me," one says) and an Orthodox Jewish man who insults him in a bakery.

Yet he still attracts fans ― like a woman who walks by a news conference and yells, "We don't care about that personal garbage," and the charming fanboy who can't wait to get a selfie. The question becomes: Who will forgive him? Weiner feels there's a "phoniness" to the outrage, but acknowledges, "I did the thing" - a thing that would later send him to prison and play a role in Hillary Clinton's 2016 loss.

Much more earnest is Robert Drew's "Primary," the first modern cinéma vérité campaign documentary - from 1960, appropriately, the same election as Theodore White's "The Making of the President," the first modern fly-on-the-wall campaign book. Smaller equipment allowed the cameramen (Pennebaker was one) to follow candidates more closely. John Kennedy faced Hubert Humphrey for the Democratic nomination in Wisconsin, back when voters sang campaign jingles and barely knew what a primary was. But the film (for rent on various streaming services) does slip in some sly commentary, like when it cuts from Kennedy's autograph-seeking mobs to the agriculture-focused Humphrey going on about how snow brings nitrogen to the soil.

Humphrey returns in "Chisholm 72: Unbought and Unbossed" (included in Amazon Prime), Shola Lynch's 2004 take on Shirley Chisholm, the first black congresswoman, running for the Democratic presidential nomination. Chisholm is admirably persistent, even as everyone fixates on her viability as a candidate - at a debate, she's asked if she'd support Humphrey or George McGovern. And the film shows that an also-ran candidacy can resonate in a meaningful, moving way years later, as Chisholm, right before her death in 2005, recalls how she didn't get the support from black and women leaders that she expected, and was physically attacked three times while on the trail.

It's not far off from Rachel Lears' "Knock Down the House," which follows four 2018 Democratic women struggling for legitimacy against male primary opponents. What's powerful is witnessing regular people compelled to rise up - such as Amy Vilela, who sold her house to run for Congress in Nevada, driven by the death of her daughter. Or Paula Jean Swearengin challenging Sen. Joe Manchin III's, D-W.Va., pro-coal stance, even though she comes from a long line of coal miners: "We've been collateral damage."

Some viewers will roll their eyes, as the film clearly targets progressives. For those who see her as a hero, watching Ocasio-Cortez hauling a bucket of ice at her waitressing job may recall other working-class movie characters who discover a latent ability to lead a rebellion against the status quo, such as Katniss Everdeen, from a coal-mining district, or farmer Luke Skywalker. During debate prep, she sits on her couch, rehearsing with her boyfriend, Riley Roberts, waving her arms and saying, "I need to take up space," not knowing how much digital space she will take up a year later.

After her primary win, she and Roberts visit the Capitol and ride through the plaza on Lime scooters. Stars, they're just like us.

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