Not Going Quietly isn’t always easy to watch, but it’s a lot more hopeful than you might expect, and never manipulative.

Film Review: Not Going Quietly

Film Reviews

Not Going Quietly
Director: Nicholas Bruckman

Duplass Brothers Productions
In Theaters 08.27

A documentary that is able to successfully go back and paint a clear picture of a life or past events can be great if it’s done well. And there are rare cases such as Not Going Quietly, when the filmmaker is actually able to literally document these moments as they unfold. For me, that’s when the format leaves narrative dramas in the dust.

Not Going Quietly is the story of Ady Barkan, a rising star in progressive politics and a new father. His life is turned upside down when, at age 32, he is diagnosed with ALS and given three to four years before the disease completely takes over. This happens just before the election of Donald Trump, who has four years to wipe out America, which scared Ady even more than ALS.

Starting with a video of him confronting Senator Jeff Flake on an airplane going viral, Ady Barkan is catapulted to national fame. We see Ady and a determined group of activists ignite a once-in-a-generation political movement called “Be a Hero.” Together, they barnstorm across the country, teaching people how to confront their elected officials with emotional, personal stories in the fight to save the Affordable Care Act and beyond. Ady holds groundbreaking interviews with Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. As Ady rises to become Politico’s “Most Powerful Activist in America,” he discovers that collective action and speaking truth to power offers hope for his family and for millions of others.

Director Nicholas Bruckman (How We Do It) had the benefit of cellphone cameras, which documented the portions of the story that happened before he started following Ady, including the emotionally charged moment when Ady records his own thoughts the night he finds out that he had the disease and stayed up all night, unable to sleep and wondering what he was going to do. The only drawback to the early footage is that it’s all shot vertically, which doesn’t look good anywhere but on social media. But it does add the realism and raw spontaneity of the way Ady Barkan’s incredible story has taken place on camera almost from the moment it started.

From there, Bruckman and his team seem to capture every moment. We go on the road with Ady and watch with excitement as he spreads his message—and with sheer horror as his body rapidly deteriorates. Ady tries to balance his time between trying to change the world and making every moment count with his toddler son, Carl, while he’s still able to speak with what physical capacity he has left. 

Not Going Quietly is undoubtedly a politically charged film, and it doesn’t paint a flattering picture of the modern Republican party. While Barkan is a staunch supporter of Medicare For All, you don’t necessarily have to be one to get swept into the drama of the story and to grow to love this man, his family and the people who are by his side through this battle. Not Going Quietly puts the audience right there on the front lines, whether it’s on the political battlefield or in the shower with a protagonist who can’t dress or undress himself.

It’s a heartbreaking yet life-affirming portrait that deliberately avoids trying to be “inspirational,” which Barkan and another activist with ALS lament is always meant as compliment but inevitably feels condescending and dehumanizing to those merely trying to keep going the best they can while making a differences. They’re not necessarily eager to see their condition or how they deal with it as something that inspires warm fuzzies. I believe that it’s more accurate to describe Ady Barkan and Not Going Quietly as admirable and motivating, as the film makes the viewer ask the question, “What am I doing?” without ever throwing the question directly at them. Bruckman offers beautifully structured the story, along with his editors, and the portrait that he has given us is unforgettable in every way.

Not Going Quietly isn’t always easy to watch, but it’s a lot more hopeful than you might expect, and never manipulative. It ranks high on the list of most powerful films of 2021, and it’s a game-changing documentary that will be pointed to again and again in years to come as one of the most influential of its time. It’s a story of heroism and, most importantly, of life, the moments that make it and the determination to help create as many as possible for everyone. –Patrick Gibbs