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Dark Horses and Lame Ducks: What Can We Learn From the Rash of Political Documentaries?

There have never been more docs focused on the electoral process. Some have tracked rising candidates like Beto O’Rourke and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, while others have followed backroom connivers like Steve Bannon. Why are these movies booming in 2019?

HBO/Magnolia Pictures/Netflix/Ringer illustration

Beto O’Rourke lost. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won. Steve Bannon was banished.

These are facts, recorded for posterity. They are also, invariably, narrative beats in our history, results of a series of invisible decisions. Understanding these events—how and why they happened—isn’t as easy as looking at Twitter, life’s hectoring scoreboard. They require access and maybe a little insight. It’s convenient then that these moments have also been recorded on film, and explored in great depth in a trio of documentaries released this year. They are significant contenders in a growing race of nonfiction filmmaking, the sort that tends to arise at moments of national turmoil. Let’s call them The Urgent Doc. In the past, these sorts of movies were limited to issue-driven, self-anointed messiahs like Michael Moore or curious interrogators like Errol Morris. But the number of docs in America is growing at a rapid rate and the desire for dialogue about the political process has never been more voracious. The Urgent Doc has never happened this fast, with this level of urgency. And they may still not be happening fast enough.

Tuesday night sees the premiere of Running With Beto, an up-close portrait of three-term Democratic congressman Beto O’Rourke campaigning for the Senate in 2017, stalking the hill country and touring the border towns of Texas. Directed by David Modigliani in a fly-on-the-shoulder verite style, the movie is perfectly timed and somehow already an artifact.

“Since the 2016 election, I had been feeling how much we dehumanize each other through politics and how much that causes people to tune out and not to participate,” Modigliani told me in March, after the SXSW premiere of his film, “and was eager to try to tell a story that might re-humanize politics in some way, or be an invitation to the democratic process.”

After crossing paths with the Texas congressman on a baseball diamond in the early stages of his campaign, Modigiliani began to try to convince O’Rourke to let him and his small crew shoot his daily activities during the race. (“His campaign chief, David Wysong, asked me, ‘So remind me again why this isn’t a total distraction that does nothing to help us win the election?’” Modigliani recalled.) Eventually, he did. The film finds O’Rourke at once the beatific avatar of eye-contact decency accumulating a national reputation while running a local race and also a brusque taskmaster with his staff. And it captures a specific brand of civic energy. Modigliani follows not just the candidate but three loyal supporters scattered across the state stumping for their man. O’Rourke’s family is shown at a complex moment, watching their father grow more famous as they become increasingly convinced of his beneficence. His supporters draw signs, knock on doors, and organize protests. O’Rourke himself stands on furniture, streams himself driving, speaks passionately, goes viral, discovers his counterpunch, regrets it, and eventually loses. We see aides and campaign consults wring their hands, and volunteers rend their garments. Like The War Room in a time of social media strategy, it’s a D.A. Pennebaker-style portrait glazed with a Facebook Watch filter. What differentiates Running With Beto and draws it closer to 2016’s Weiner, is that as the campaign went nuclear and O’Rourke’s name gained the kind of recognition reserved for presidents and pop stars, Modigliani was there, seated in the front row. Mostly.

“It was really challenging. There were camera crews from South Korea, France, in Paducah, Texas,” Modigiliani said. “And they were this rock band that had made it big but had no additional roadies, no additional support team, and it was really him and a staff of two or three, and they were just inundated. We couldn’t get back into the van leaving venues. It was wildly exhilarating but super intense for them. And I think there is that mentality of ‘circle the wagons’ because there are just so many people trying to penetrate the inner circle.

“And so I honestly had to have a bit of a moment of truth about two months out, where I wrote an email to Beto, [his wife] Amy, and their team and just said, ‘Hey, we’re in position to make a film that could really capture the legacy of this campaign. Unless it goes from a behind-the-scenes film just to outside-looking-in.’”

Modigliani convinced him to let the film crew stay close—and the filmmakers are present, practically within touching distance, for crucial moments after a fierce debate, in moments of self-reflection, and immediately after the election’s results are revealed. O’Rourke still lost to Ted Cruz. It was by a surprisingly slim margin of 2.6 percent, but he lost nonetheless. Was that a threat to the film itself?

“Plan A was really that he was gonna lose,” Modigliani said. “So the dramatic question of the film needs to not be ‘Is this guy going to win?’ As we were shooting and in the editing room, [we were] thinking a lot more about the dramatic question being ‘Can this guy reignite politics in Texas? Can he get people involved in a state that is 50th in the country in voter turnout?’”

HBO

In that respect, Beto helped usher in an 18 percent increase in voter turnout in the state of Texas. At times, Modigiliani’s film can’t help but warmly embrace its subject. Produced in part by Crooked Media and airing on HBO, there are moments that feel cribbed from Bobby Kennedy’s iconography. O’Rourke is a smiling swashbuckler, down-home but stiff-backed. It’s not boosterism, but there is no doubt an empathy for O’Rourke’s person-to-person approach to politics. It’s a complex proposition for documentarians attempting to record an authentic moment. One of Modigliani’s previous films, 2008’s Crawford, showed a small town in Texas irrevocably changed by George W. Bush’s presidency. He has lived in the state for several years and has a keen sense of its political shape. Running With Beto isn’t advocacy, per se, but it isn’t antiseptic either.

“We knew that this film was not going to come out before the [senate] election,” the 39-year-old filmmaker said. “So what we were making was gonna have absolutely no impact on whether he won or lost this campaign. We were much more interested in being part of the 2020 cycle, not in the sense that when we set out we had no idea that he would be somebody that was being considered as a potential candidate, but more that by telling the story of his approach to politics—this sort of candor that he had, the transparency, especially the no PAC money, which is now a position that’s been adopted by a lot of people in the Democratic field in a very short period of time—that we might have something to add to the conversation in that way, rather than as some kind of political vehicle, or partisan approach to the film.”

O’Rourke has, of course, entered the presidential race, arriving on the cover of Vanity Fair in April with the presumption of imminent kingmaking. He was received with an awkward shrug. What had been an inspirational underdog story in Texas quickly morphed into a privileged also-ran’s attempt to restart his own mythological race to greatness. Beto O’Rourke is neither the saintly, viral dad of Running With Beto nor the opportunistic pair of Wranglers shouting about the power of punk rock. But movies need archetypes, characters, arcs. What’s striking about Running With Beto isn’t its credulity—it’s how fast its story has changed. It will live forever as a document of an unlikely rise built from the ground up. In this moment, it bears the burden not of a loss, but of a news cycle.

But what if your subject wins? That is the fascinating gift and paradox of Rachel Lears’s Knock Down the House, a story of aspirant female congressional candidates running during the 2018 midterms that was released to Netflix earlier this month. In fact, three of the women in Lears’s film—Nevada’s Amy Vilela, Missouri’s Cori Bush, and West Virginia’s Paula Jean Swearengin—did not win. But the spirited New Yorker Ocasio-Cortez primaried longtime Democratic Queens-Bronx congressman Joe Crowley and handily defeated him. The style of Lears’s film, which she began working on immediately after Donald Trump’s election, is, like Running With Beto, largely verite in approach. There are long, quiet stretches in candidates’ homes exhibiting the tedious work of grassroots organizing and strategizing. For every election night, there are dozens of arcane conversations about polling data. Getting elected in America is still a bureaucratic pursuit. But there is a roiling force at the center of Lears’s film.

Both Running With Beto and Knock Down the House feel deeply indebted to Marshall Curry’s Street Fight, a thrilling 2005 doc that chronicled Cory Booker’s campaign for the mayorship of Newark, New Jersey. Booker, like O’Rourke, lost his race, but ends the film seeming destined for bigger things. (He is, like O’Rourke, now running for president in 2020.) Lears’s film is a masterclass in documentary casting, identifying four figures with resonant stories, strong and clear-eyed communicators with messages of perseverance in the face of struggle. They are the movie’s thesis in action.

“I think you need people that are going to externalize their emotions in certain ways,” Lears said, “and that is always part of what I’m looking for in documentaries. ... I really do not think of it as an issue-oriented movie. I really thought of it as character-based.”

Lears, who is 41, financed her film largely with grants and sought a dispassionate approach to her subjects. But Ocasio-Cortez in particular is portrayed vividly as a blue-collar avatar of the breaking point—she can be seen in the film filling sinks with ice at her bartender day job and hoofing all over the city, spreading the message of her campaign. She positions herself as a progressive force worn out by—and driven to upend—a system not designed for her. As her stature grows, her campaign hijacks long segments of the film, as we appear to be witnessing the birth of a uniquely talented politician. Lears, though, wasn’t so sure how Ocasio-Cortez would fare in the primary during production. Like Modigliani, her film became more difficult to make the closer to the election they got. Media availability widened. Intimacy shrank. Perspective was impossible to acquire.

“I certainly was not confident going into the election that she wins,” she said. “But beyond that, I knew she was very talented, and I could see that she was starting to build a profile locally and nationally in the final weeks of the campaign, but I do not think anyone predicted the rise or the media firestorm that would surround her so quickly after she won the primary.”

It wasn’t until after her victory that the interest in Lears’s film exploded. “After the election, it was just immediate,” Lears said. “We started getting a ton of industry interest in the film. I think someone at The New York Times tweeted about it. They knew that we were producing a film on her. And suddenly we were getting a lot of interest from distributors and sales agents and production companies. And everyone wanted to see the film. They were like, When can we see it?

Netflix

Lears’s previous films, which have focused on undocumented immigrant workers and online harrassment, have never had a sensation like AOC at their center. Knock Down the House premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Festival Favorite and U.S. Documentary prizes. It was acquired by Netflix for a reported sum of $10 million. Though the streaming service rarely shares viewership data, Lears’s movie was aggressively marketed to its nearly 150 million subscribers worldwide on its May 1 release date. Given Netflix’s reach, it’s quite possible that Knock Down the House is the most viewed political documentary ever made. We may never know the answer.

But this kind of exposure has significant power. Ocasio-Cortez may already be the most visible junior congressperson in the country, but Knock Down the House works only to make her more known. She is now, quite literally, a movie star. Network television and radio still abide by an equal time clause in the case of political advertisements. Streamers have no such restrictions. Knock Down the House and Running With Beto will live unencumbered on their platforms, free to be watched and rewatched by the masses (who have subscribed). That a documentary about a politician has become a valuable asset in the agglomeration of content for a media company is a sign of the inch-deep, mile-wide strategies of these companies. For years, films like Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and Morris’s The Fog of War were cinematic events, but hardly true-blue cultural phenomena. Netflix has flattened these events, and created a yearly sort of roll-out for political films. 2017’s Get Me Roger Stone, 2016’s 13th, and 2014’s Mitt were shepherded directly to the service, and over time audiences have become more comfortable getting their issue-driven and election-oriented stories this way. I have written in the past about my night-light relationship with Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal, Morgan Neville’s rat-a-tat 2015 doc about the warring political pundits, which I have watched on Netflix dozens of times. Later this month, another politically charged verite doc called American Factory, also a Sundance darling, premieres on Netflix. It’s produced by Participant Media and Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground shingle. It’s the first of seven green-lit productions from the Obamas for Netflix. Politics is also content. Even for ex-presidents.

Last year, Moore and Morris made films that attempted to tangle with our frenzied political climate. Moore’s Fahrenheit 11/9 was a kaleidoscopic portrait of failing institutions, from Flint’s water catastrophe to Florida’s teen-led gun control efforts in the aftermath of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. Though it opened on more than 1,700 screens, just four months after a rabid progressive audience drove RBG to more than $14 million in receipts, Moore’s film grossed just $6.4 million. For most doc filmmakers, this would be a grand fortune. For Moore, it was a major disappointment. Morris’s film has been seen by considerably fewer. The much-admired director of such classics of the form as The Thin Blue Line and Gates of Heaven, Morris trained his famous Interrotron on Steve Bannon, the populist architect of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, in American Dharma. Styled as the final chapter in a trilogy that began with the Oscar-winning Robert McNamara memory piece The Fog of War and the Donald Rumsfeld portrait The Unknown Known, Morris’s vision of Bannon is designed around his reminisces of his favorite movies, using them as ideological tentpoles for his political maneuvering.

Morris’s efforts were hugely criticized. For The Ringer, Adam Nayman reflected a common concern among the film’s critics, noting how it “unfortunately serves mostly to showcase Bannon’s rhetorical adeptness when confronted with questions and criticisms about his agenda.” I saw the film, which still does not have a distributor, at the New York Film Festival last year and was downright awestruck—not by its power to persuade, but by its timing. Bannon was evicted from the White House in August 2017, and just one year later, Morris’s film was being screened. Once more, it wasn’t nearly fast enough. Few have seen Morris’s film. In February, he threatened to self-release it. One month later, someone beat him to the punch, in a way.

“I had zero specific fascination with him as a person.”

That’s how Alison Klayman, a documentarian, felt when she was asked to make a film about Bannon by the producer of “The Brink,” Marie Therese Guirgis, who had worked with the political enfant terrible in the past. But there was intimate access to a unique figure in history—and also to the kind of power he represented. “I was interested because I thought he would be the vector into these rooms, to behind-the-curtain, closed-door meetings,” Klayman told me. “‘What’s the strategy? Who are the supporters?’ To me, that was the reason I said yes right away.”

What Klayman comes away with is significantly different than Morris. Her film—also cinema verite and, at times, self-reflexive—paints a muted but withering picture of Bannon, shooting his pockmarked, splotchy skin in close-up and spotlighting his huckster affect and brazen approach to political thought. She said she was not interested in doing advocacy work with The Brink, but hoped to clarify her thoughts in the filmmaking.

“My first film was [about the artist] Ai Weiwei,” Klayman said. “I do feel like I learned from him as an artist and also a political being. And my first film was so much thinking about art and politics. Do you have to separate the two? I think I share his outlook that everything is political. And I think films are made better when the filmmaker has a perspective and a point of view, but I think that’s different than having a bias or if the film is trying to communicate something specific from the outset.”

Bannon seems hopelessly transparent in Klayman’s film, eager to preserve his legacy as a populist rabble rouser and kingmaker, taking meetings with like-minded European strategists and leaders, attempting to re-infiltrate the global stage. He’s deeply ambitious but also rudderless, having conquered the highest office in the most powerful nation in the world. He is by turns forlorn and mischievous.

“I was constantly surprised by the question of what he’s really motivated by, and I think that’s tied to the ways that he sometimes seems incredibly self-aware and at other times he seems incredibly like he’s revealing himself in ways that I don’t think he intends to,” Klayman said. “I think he’s a savvy media operator and so I was incredibly, incredibly skeptical of him and evaluating constantly what were his motives and what was genuine about what he was saying or doing. And even that itself I think is very hard.”

The Brink also premiered at Sundance, but was not acquired by a streaming service or a cable network. The indie stalwart Magnolia picked it up, the same studio that distributed RBG, and documentary hits like Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Food, Inc. But The Brink failed to find an audience, earning little more than $100,000 during an abbreviated release. The film is not about a superstar politician, but Bannon arguably has more visibility, notoriety, and recent political import than the subjects of Running With Beto and Knock Down the House combined. It’s hard not to wonder how many more people might have seen it had it debuted in the comfort of millions of homes.

The year’s biggest, most bandied about documentaries—Amazing Grace, Apollo 11, Leaving Neverland, Fyre and Fyre Fraud, The Inventor—have not been political. They have leveraged fame, scandal, and wonder in equal measure. These are historical tales, many from a distant past, others from an ephemeral moment we could never have witnessed. Political documentaries carry a responsibility of recasting what we’ve already seen, and often known. They need to go deeper, closer, to feel worthwhile. They don’t need to be the final word, or act as the partisan rallying cry. But they thrive on truth and intimacy. Modigliani chose to end his film not with a slogan, but a moment.

“Probably the most special moment of my filmmaking career was after they had lost, [the O’Rourke family] allowed us to come into their kitchen on election night with their kids to sit down, and we have this conversation on camera with Beto and Amy, really processing the loss for the first time,” Modigliani said. “David Mamet has a story tip I love: Get in late and get out early. And I was so afraid of the denouement that’s going to have to unfold. But when we got that moment [I said], ‘Oh, great. That’s it. We’ll cut it right there.’”

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.

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