The feel good political activist doc “Not Going Quietly” is often as square, impassioned and charming as its subject: Ady Barkan, a person with ALS and a Medicare for All advocate whose speeches and ambush-style interviews have put essential pressure on otherwise apathetic politicians.
The makers of “Not Going Quietly” are up front and incisive about Barkan’s down-to-earth character, acknowledging not only his superhuman stamina but also his political savviness and overwhelming love for his family. This is the kind of character study/rallying-the-troops advocacy doc that’s often held back by filmmakers who just don’t have the footage they need to convince uninitiated (and probably skeptical) viewers that a star activist is also real enough, both on- and off-stage. Thankfully, writer-director Nicholas Bruckman and co-writer–producer Amanda Roddy found and assembled enough human moments to give Barkan a fitting tribute.
For starters, Bruckman and Roddy don’t seem to be intimidated by Barkan’s ALS. “Not Going Quietly” may be conventional, starting with Barkan’s ALS diagnosis and building up to a list of his accomplishments with a series of bona fides-proving confrontations and speeches. At the same time, Bruckman and Roddy sparingly emphasize footage of Barkan struggling with everyday tasks, like dressing, bathing and eating.
More often than not, Bruckman and Roddy reveal Barkan’s character through a measured and convincing assembly of at-home and on-the-road footage. Barkan’s relationship with his wife Rachael and young son Carl is given special consideration in modest domestic scenes, which makes it easier to see Barkan as a family man, a self-image that every political figure plays up but very few succeed at portraying.
Well-proportioned slices of Barkan’s home life paint a fuller picture of the man, as when Carl spontaneously praises Barkan for “speaking so well.” His dad responds with a knowing smile. Also revealing: footage of Carl freezing up at a town hall-type gathering. Watching Carl fidget uncomfortably after his father’s speech concludes doesn’t say much about Barkan but rather about the milieu in which he’s working. So here we get to see Carl as a kid, and not just a bashful, heartstrings-yanking talking point.
Barkan’s affectionate relationship with campaign strategist and social media wiz Liz Jaff is also believable, especially when we see them negotiating their respective visions for Barkan’s campaign. Jaff clearly has a lot of affection for Barkan, like when she smiles indulgently as he starts to dictate a tweet: “Yo, people, listen up.” And Barkan always seems interested, though sometimes unsure of, the success of a social media-fueled political campaign, despite Jaff’s constant reassurances and proven successes.
So when she tell him that “these online videos are what drive the whole campaign,” it’s a lot easier to be open to what Jaff and Barkan have accomplished, especially since their shared success was never really a given. There are some canned moments of sentimental behind-the-scenes drama, like when Jaff tearfully embraces Barkan after he makes his final speech using his natural voice (he now speaks through a computer). But even these human interest story-type moments seem real enough.
All of this paves the way for crucial scenes where Barkan addresses hostile politicians and sympathetic crowds with consistent urgency and conviction. These scenes are stirring, though it’s hard to imagine accepting them as anything but good rhetoric outside of Bruckman and Roddy’s documentary.
Still, Barkan’s physical presence – which he knows can be upsetting, and which he uses to put pressure on many deserving targets – and fiery speeches are effective for the same reason that Bruckman and Roddy’s movie is: He’s thoughtful enough to be genuinely appealing. When former Arizona Senator Jeff Flake commends Barkan for being “very up on everything,” Barkan presses his advantage by pointedly rejecting Flake’s compliment: “My life depends on it.” And when Barkan cannot (physically) continue speaking at a rally, it’s an emotional moment, and thankfully not one that Bruckman and Roddy dwell on. “Not Going Quietly” credibly highlights the “moral stakes” of Barkan’s cause, as one of his colleague says, with a welcome mix of candor and artful consideration.
Ultimately, Bruckman and Roddy’s movie never goes anywhere unexpected. Barkan’s ALS only gets worse, as you might expect from a progressively degenerative neurological disease. And his activism is shown to have an impact on politicians and therefore the political agenda that, just last year, led to the Democrats retaking a majority in the House of Representatives. What’s most impressive about “Not Going Quietly” is that these considerable victories appear to have been earned according to Bruckman and Roddy’s footage and not just based on selective quotes they pull from CNN’s coverage of Barkan’s speeches or from a more recent Flake interview, where he calls Barkan “an inspiration to all of us, no matter our politics.”
If the state of the world requires more documentaries like “Not Going Quietly,” then their creators would do well to be as considerate as Bruckman and Roddy.
“Not Going Quietly” opens in US theaters August 13.