Political documentaries in a partisian world

Modern politics and media are so intertwined it’s hard to view one without the other. But hasn’t it always been this way? Where would the Framers be without the printing press? Franklin Roosevelt without radio? Trump without Twitter?

And though movies capture past events in the present tense, they too have created signature portraits of politicians on the rise. A recent example, Running with Beto, documents the Texas congressman, Beto O’Rourke, and his grassroots campaign for incumbent Ted Cruz’s Senate seat in the 2018 election.

Jacqueline and John F. Kennedy in Primary. Image courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

We’ve been here before. In 1960, filmmakers Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles, Terence Macartney-Filgate, and D.A. Pennebaker, armed with new, lightweight cameras and portable audio recorders, captured a Wisconsin presidential primary between Hubert Humphrey and John F. Kennedy. And though their film, Primary, was as of the moment as you could get, it wasn’t released until after Kennedy beat Richard Nixon in the general election.

Captured in a sea of grainy monotone grays and flat lighting, Primary set the stage for a new form of documentary, one that watched rather than intervened; captured rather than constructed; presented rather than manipulated. The French called it cinéma-vérité (film truth). Jump ahead to 1992, and you can see Pennebaker—this time working with filmmaker Chris Hegedus—employing cinéma-vérité to capture the Bill Clinton campaign. Again, the work (War Room) wasn’t released until after the general election, and again audiences wanted to know just how a relatively unknown upstart could make his way to the top office in the nation.

Hillary and Bill Clinton in War Room. Image courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

We’re still asking those questions. And not just in Running with Beto, but also in Knock Down the House, which follows Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Amy Vilela, Cori Bush, and Paula Jean Swearengin as they ran primary campaigns against four established members of the Democratic Party in 2018.

It’s no secret that of those four women and O’Rourke, only Ocasio-Cortez came out the victor. However, the story was far from finished: O’Rourke announced his presidential campaign for 2020, and America has probably not heard the last from Vilela, Bush, and Swearengin.

Like Pennebaker before them, both Rachel Lears (director of Knock Down the House) and David Modigliani (director of Running with Beto) remain as hands-off as possible. But there is a noticeable difference between their approaches. Our concept of politicians has significantly shifted since the days of Primary, as has our depiction of them.

What hasn’t changed is our fascination. Like Primary and War Room, the outcome of Knock Down the House and Running with Beto is known to anyone watching, and the story lacks suspense. But as documents of a specific time and place, they are invaluable. And if Primary and War Room are any indication, Running With Beto and Knock Down the House are far from the conclusion of the story; they are just the beginning. 

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in Knock Down the House. Courtesy Netflix.

A version of the above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 26, No. 40, “We’re just getting started.”