'To The End' Review: A Scattered, Occasionally Brilliant, Rallying Cry about the Climate Crisis [Sundance]

Returning to similar thematic territory as her previous 2019 documentary feature, “Knock Down the House,” director Rachel Lears turns to the climate crises in her follow-up, “To the End.” Much like that previous film, Lears follows four female climate activists — Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Sunrise Movement Executive Director Varshini Prakesh, Justice Democrats Executive Director Alexandra Rojas, and Roosevelt Institute Policy Director Rhiana Gunn-Wright — as they work to write and institute the Green New Deal. A scattered, occasionally galvanizing, call to arms, “To The End” paints in broad strokes. Yet, when it lands, which it often does when focused on the sheer doggedness of its protagonists, Lears’ film replicates the simultaneous enthusiasm and indignation that propels these activists to continue working. 

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While “Knock Down the House” was propelled by a staggering sense of hope that progressive insurgency might actually transform institutional gridlock, “To The End” deals with the frustrating setbacks that come with attempts to prioritize immediate action to combat climate change. As one activist states at Justice Democrats, they are adopting the same aggressive tactics as the Tea Party to pressure politicians to adopt Green New Deal policies, with mixed results. When showcasing these tactics, “To The End” works as a tool of advocacy.  

However, Lears moves rapidly in an attempt to document the entire political history of the New Green Deal from early 2019 to present, detouring into the Keystone Pipeline, BLM protests, COVID-19, etc. with remarkable speed. Even though the film succinctly argues that all of these problems are interconnected, “To The End” is nevertheless overwhelming as it leaps from topic-to-topic and year to year.

One wishes that Lears’ film was a bit more disciplined in its narrative approach, narrowing in on a particular organization or politician instead of trying to juxtapose everything all-at-once. There are half a dozen films crammed into a 103-minute runtime. Just recapping the amount of material covered —  the Democratic Presidential Primaries, the Sunrise Movement “Generation on Fire” March and Hunger Strike, the Jessica Cisneros-Henry Cuellar Democratic Primary, Joe Manchin’s opposition to Biden’s Build Back Better plan, etc. — leads to whiplash.

While Ocasio-Cortez appears to be the throughline — a narrative feature cribbed from “Knock Down the House” — the film also seems more interested in foregrounding community activists from the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats. This is a noble narrative choice —  Prakesh, Roja, and Gunn-Wright are compelling leads — although “To The End” doesn’t spend enough time with any of them to get a sense of who they are as people, or how to differentiate their organizations outside of their relationships to Green New Deal policy initiatives. 

The film is more focused when turning to AOC, and, to a lesser extent, Ed Markey and Bernie Sanders, as they work to institute policy changes on an institutional level, despite massive pushback from Republicans and moderate Democrats. Further, when showcasing the resiliency of these organizations and leaders, Lears’ film feels less like a SparkNotes version of the last three years and more grounded within the personal experiences of her subjects. When the Sunrise Movement is marching through California, Rojas is fighting with CNN producers to give more screen time to climate initiatives, and activists stage a sit-in at Nancy Pelosi’s office, the frustration is palpable. 

By the time the film finally catches up to the present, the lack of tangible progress has, understandably, boiled over into rage. A scene in which demonstrators block Joe Manchin from driving out of a parking garage is tragi-comic in juxtaposing Manchin’s indifference compared to the Sunrise Movement’s exasperation. For anyone who has even been tangentially following the news, it’s not exactly a spoiler that “To The End” ends on an ellipsis rather than a period. The film is stuck in the same limbo as everyone else, left wondering about the decisions of Manchin and his fellow Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema, who have enraged some in the party for undercutting Biden’s policy agenda. While a bit more disorganized, and much more depressing, than her earlier film, “To The End” is nevertheless an effective rallying cry. [B]

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