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Documentary Quickshots #8

Apollo 11 (2019; Directed by Todd Douglas Miller)

50 years ago (plus one week), the eleventh numbered mission of NASA’s Apollo spaceflight program succeeded in landing the first human beings on the moon. American astronauts Neil Armstrong and, shortly after, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin became the first people to walk on the lunar surface. The moon landing was watched by millions of American as well as enraptured people all around the world, and remains one of the iconic events of the 20th Century and indeed of human history, albeit an oddly amorphous one, in terms of practical effects. What the Apollo 11 mission unquestionably remains for America is a remarkable achievement of engineering and science, a clearly victorious knock-out blow in the Cold War space race competition with the Soviet Union, and the defining positive collective experience of the turbulent 1960s, still clung to tightly by Baby Boomers as their generation’s ultimate trump card (“Sure, you millenials know how to download a movie to a cell phone, but we put a man on the moon!”).

And nobody ever realized that the whole thing was filmed on a soundstage by Stanley Kubrick, either!

In all seriousness, Apollo 11 was a pinnacle moment for the grandiose myth of American self-projection, massive financial and technological resources and manpower and brainpower marshalled for a cultural supernova of aspiration-as-inspiration-as-history. One wonders darkly if anyone will be in a position to remember anything at all after American hegemony is gone (it most certainly will not go out without a tremendous amount of kicking and screaming, hopefully little enough of it of the nucelar variety), but surviving human memory could do worse than to select the moon landing as the thing to remember the United States of America for.

Apollo 11 is made in all seriousness, a scrupulously sober and matter-of-fact stage-by-stage and, on occasion, moment-by-moment documentary narrative of the Apollo 11 mission constructed almost entirely from archival footage and audio. Only brief, interspersed simple diagrammatic animations detailing the spacecraft’s progress to the moon and back to Earth and the various maneuvres it must execute on its journey break into director/producer/editor Todd Douglas Miller’s re-creation of this historic mission from the constituent parts of its contemporary visual and aural documentation.

The resulting film, a surprise box-office success as a documentary on the arthouse circuit, can be a little staid and procedural, it’s true. Any fleeting humour is drawn more from the hopelessly square nature of the jokes exchanged by the astronauts and mission control in Houston than from their punchlines, and truly surprising details (like the moon-orbiting astronauts discussing how its surface looks brown to their eyes rather than the grey that the camera always picks up) are few and far between in this most well-covered of historical events.

But Apollo 11‘s tone of straight-faced, responsible historical witnessing is also a breath of fresh air in this fabulist age of carpet-bombing disingenuousness and bullshitting, of lies so big as to swallow the world. This age is also one of nostalgia, not so out of place for an empire in decay, and reminiscing on a time when America could accomplish wonders and not merely consolidate privilege at the cost of spreading nihilistic misery at home and abroad fills chests with a warm glow indeed. More than anything, Apollo 11 renders a technological project that still seems implausible and even impossible (hence the legacy of disbelieving conspiracy theories) incredible tangible and tactile (although the landing approach to the lunar surface here, though fully real, can only suffer in comparison to the white-knuckle tension of the you-are-there experience of Damien Chazelle’s First Man). Even at its half-century anniversary, the moon landing can hardly be real. But in Apollo 11, it is real, with the thoroughness of recorded truth and the organized structure of narrative.

Knock Down the House (2019; Directed by Rachel Lears)

Back in the current-day U.S., Rachel Lears’ Knock Down the House tracks a more earthbound but no less ambitious and daring project to reimagine the developing history of the country. Lears’ Netflix-distributed documentary follows four female, broadly progressive, more-or-less working-class insurgent candidates for congressional nominations in the Democratic Party ahead of the 2018 elections. All four candidates were supported and shepherded in their primary challenges to established Democratic elected officials by grassroots left-wing activist groups Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, who see them (as the film does) as part of a progressive populist wave of electoral response to the complacent establishment wing of the Democratic Party, whose gullible centrism, reliance on consultants and focus groups, and back-scratching interconnections with lobbyists and monied interests made it vulnerable to defeat by a crooked, capricious, racist, democracy-threatening grifter who swindled the opposing political party and now sits in the White House like over-sated swine atop a pile of mud and manure.

Whether or not you think or feel that business-as-usual Democrats failed their country in the fall of 2016 (and surely the poor resistance of the entire Republican Party and its increasingly death-cult-like voting bloc to Trump’s clumsy machinations must take most of the blame), Knock Down the House is a fascinating look inside the American electoral system, a front-line institution of democracy that, to a Canadian used to the seemingly efficient nationwide impartiality of Elections Canada, comes across as astonishingly biased and slanted. All four of these women, along with their supporters and allies, know that the odds are stacked firmly against them in facing off with their own party, which has its hands on the levers in favour of their well-connected incumbent opponents.

Were it not for a remarkably unlikely history-making upset pulled off by the youngest and most charismatic of these women in the nation’s largest city and media power centre, Knock Down the House would be an above-average personal-profile documentary with some behind-the-curtain ambitions of exposure of the mechanisms of power sprinkled in. Three of the profiled candidates lose their primaries, but each provides an instructive case study into America’s problems. Cori Bush is an African-American woman running to represent the congressional district that includes Ferguson, Missouri, a recent flashpoint of the country’s eternally contentious race relations. Paula Jean Swearengin campaigns unsuccessfully (but with a strong-enough showing) against Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a state once reliably Democratic that broke hard for Trump’s rhetoric of white grievance (its population is 93% white) and empty promises of restoring the glory of coal mining, the low-income state’s largest industry but also one that Swearengin is at pains to point out devastates its environment and the health of its labourers. Amy Vilela, having been a corporate CFO before running for office in Nevada, is perhaps the least proletarian of Lears’ subjects, but she shares a compelling, wrenching personal trauma that drives her mission to be elected: her daughter died in her early 20s after going untreated due to a lack of health insurance, and Vilela harnessed her memory in fighting for health reform.

But the largest share of screen time and the clearest narrative arc in Knock Down the House belong to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the then-28-year-old waitress/bartender (and international relations/economics grad; and Ted Kennedy intern; and veteran of activist non-profits) of Puerto Rican descent who harnessed grassroots organizing, socialist rhetoric and imagery, savvy social media use, and natural assertiveness and likability to unseat Rep. Joe Crowley, a 10-term incumbent and then the fifth-ranking Democrat in Congress, in New York’s 14th congressional district in the Bronx and Queens, which, after defeating token Republican opposition in the staunchly Democratic district, she now represents in Congress. Lears surely cannot have believed her luck in having as one of her documentary subjects a burgeoning media star who has by now become the second most-famous politician in America, after only the lamentably attention-sucking Trump.

Knock Down the House is thus Ocasio-Cortez’s movie, and the tireless energy of her campaign (conducted in between lengthy bartending shifts at a taco-slinging bar in Manhattan’s Union Square, no less) transfers to the film itself. Whatever one thinks of her left-wing politics (one scene shows her discussing including the progressive rallying cry “Abolish ICE”, the authoritarian immigration-enforcement paramilitary unit that has become Trump’s private minority-brutalizing S.S., on her pamphlets), Knock Down the House leaves little doubt that AOC is a star, wielding the appeals of her youthful aura to draw in interest and then employing a sharp and nuanced intellect to turn that interest to desired issues, to say nothing of using that same intellect to dismantle anyone so taken in by her surface as to take her lightly (usually this is older white men, of course).

Knock Down the House becomes, through the as-it-happens development of AOC’s campaign and political stardom, a more rounded depiction of the challenges and issues facing the Democratic Party than it might otherwise have been. On the one hand, the well-considered, smartly organized grassroots efforts of Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress to recruit diverse congressional candidates unbeholden to corporate pressure interests is encouraging, demonstrating a concerted activist mission to remake America’s only remotely reasonable, reality-based, non-authoritarian political party into a force of equality, equitability, and progressive ideals. That’s only half the battle, of course; what the nation is to do with the fact that its other power-alternating party has become a glorified fascist gang of bible-thumping white supremacists who do the bidding of a cabal of reactionary billionaires is by far the more difficult and even intractable question.

But while Knock Down the House displays the pains and stretch-marks of building a new and better Democratic Party, it ought also to serve as a warning for the party and its faithful to be wary of the tendency towards cult-of-personality saviour-seeking that has often set back progressive politics in America. One of the best things about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as a politician is that her charismatic appeal is merely the bait that leads voters to the hook of her progressive politics. The high personal popularity of Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, underscored by their thumping electoral victories, can now be seen as contributing factors to the damaging complacency of the Democratic Party that has seen them lose ground to the GOP, who are increasingly unbound by the rule of law in the pursuit of political power. Obama especially, not entirely through fault of his own, came to represent to the American left a figure of redemption in and of himself; who cares that he didn’t achieve the progressive domestic policy agenda he talked up in his campaigns, nor the people-empowering promise of Yes, We Can, he was good and therefore his presidency was good.

In the wake of Trump, whose dominant toxic personality rules over the snakepit of the GOP like a barbarian warlord who both embodies the pathologies of the party’s cultural adherents and presses its degeneration ever forward and downward in lockstep with his own, there is a clear constituency of Democrats with no interest in policy positions or getting the deforming power of money out of politics. No, they gaze longingly at the party’s deep bench of presidential candidates, looking for the next Great Leader to transcend policy wonkery and the dreaded S-word thrown around in reference to them by both fearmongering right-wing Fox News critics and conversation-changing millenials with roses in their Twitter avatars. The next Obama, Clinton, or JFK could be here among them, waiting to Camelot-ify America again and magically erase the dried-on layer of Trumpian slime! It could be Beto O’Rourke (though it almost certainly is not)! Pete Buttigieg (he can read Norwegian and he’s gay)! Even Barack’s best buddy from those internet memes, Joe Biden (no matter that he’s to the right of half of the Republican side of the Senate)!

Perhaps AOC is too belligerently progressive to enter this conversation. Certainly she’s too young, constitutionally barred from being President for a half-decade yet, which could be a blessing in disguise, allowing her to build her profile and legislative record in the House for some time yet. But the Great Person theory of American politics has hurt progressive efforts for too long, and if Ocasio-Cortez can help to move the party from it as well as towards her preferred progressive agenda, she’ll have done her party, her country, and maybe the world a pretty substantial favour.

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Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews
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