In 2019, Rachel Lears’s documentary Knock Down the House followed four young women campaigning for Congress during the 2018 midterm elections — one of whom, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, ultimately won. (Another of the film’s subjects, Cori Bush, was eventually elected to the House of Representatives in 2020 as well.) Made in the thick of the “Resistance” spirit of the middle Trump years, the film embodies the new hope in the political process that galvanized many in the center and on the left during that time. Just three years later, Lears’s follow-up to the film, To the End (2022), is much more measured in its optimism but still doggedly hopeful in the US political process, perhaps to a fault.
Here the focus shifts from electoral politics to the increasingly urgent effort to realize some (any) kind of government action to combat climate change. Ocasio-Cortez is again a central character, along with three other young women of color: Sunrise Movement Cofounder and Executive Director Varshini Prakash, Roosevelt Institute Climate Policy Director Rhiana Gunn-Wright, and Justice Democrats Executive Director Alexandra Rojas. Ocasio-Cortez’s shift from a surprise independent candidate to an elected House representative between films embodies a broader perspective flip from Lears; instead of outsiders, Ocasio-Cortez has access to leaders of PACs, think tanks, and activist organizations. Still, over the four years that the documentary follows the women, as their separate but related efforts coalesce around what is eventually called the Green New Deal, it’s evident that establishment power poses little threat toward the monumental resistance to climate reform in the US.
The film continually shuffles between two modes: on one side the nuts and bolts of its subjects’ activism, advocacy, and awareness-raising efforts, and on the other the grim broader context of looming climate disaster, and how it hangs over their psyches. As the movie reminds the audience early on, by now enough damage has been done to the environment that a certain amount of catastrophe is inevitable, and the window for effective action to mitigate the worst potential effects of global warming is closing with alarming speed. Given that both Lears and these women understand these stakes well, at a certain point their commitment to change within traditional channels of elections and lobbying seems almost absurd. It does not appear to be the director’s intent, but there is an unmistakable deckchairs-on-the-Titanic vibe.
But this does not necessarily undermine To the End’s effectiveness. It may be misplaced in putting an aggressively positive frame on ultimately minor and easily reversible gains (such as Joe Biden supposedly being brought around to drastic climate action, which since the film’s shooting period has already been watered down significantly). The film has a trenchant string of observations about the ways in which the process and structure of the status quo obstruct progress. Rojas steels herself for a talking head appearance on cable news, only to get asked a single biased question. Prakash watches as young Sunrise Movement activists are dismissed by one of the Senate’s most senior members. Gunn-Wright muses on how climate disasters will disproportionately harm nonwhite peoples across the globe. Despite To the End’s insistence on hope, its most indelible moments are those that are honest about the understandable trepidation so many of us feel about the future.
To the End will soon be available to stream on VOD platforms.