Ady Barkan was already dying of ALS when he confronted Senator Jeff Flake on a plane in 2018, but the liberal activist’s story had only just started. Barkan’s back-and-forth with the Republican senator, who would soon vote in favor of the Trump Administration’s assaultive tax reform despite Barkan’s pleas, went viral (under the coy hashtag #FlakesonaPlane) before they landed. “Not Going Quietly,” the wrenching and earnest documentary about Barkan’s tireless advocacy for healthcare reform, explains many of the crucial steps that came next. As it builds to a 2019 testimony at a congressional hearing for Medicare-for-all, “Not Going Quietly” turns on the innate power of watching the wheelchair-bound Barkan transform his very body into a vessel to support his cause.
Director Nicholas Bruckman (“La Americana”) assembles a brisk overview of Barkan’s hard work at rallies and demonstrations in the moments leading up to his diagnosis, as well as the happy life he’s built with his wife and young son. But it only takes a few minutes for the tragic twist to enter the story through Barkan’s own perspective, as intimate video diaries and verite footage explore the circumstances that forced him to come to terms with his illness — which eventually causes the loss of all motor function — and how it quickly emboldened his call to action.
After learning that his insurance would deny him a ventilator because it had been deemed an “experimental” treatment even though he’d eventually need it to survive, Barkan hits the road, injecting his community organizing skills with a renewed sense of purpose. “The knowledge I was dying was terrible,” he says in a robotic voiceover, “but dealing with insurance was even worse.” It was then that he happened to cross paths with Flake, while activist Liz Jaffe helped record the showdown. “Not Going Quietly” documents the behind the scenes of that encounter and its dramatic fallout, as Barkan soon catapulted to national heroism and progressive senators ranging from Elizabeth Warren to Bernie Sanders took note of his righteous aims.
“Be a hero,” Barkan told Flake, and that ethos became his rallying call. Soon, the “Be a Hero” campaign was traversing the nation with a growing team of supporters, and the movie hits the road alongside Barkan with his merry band of activists to provide a joyful window into Barkan’s determination at every turn. The best of this passage involves a sequence showcasing “birddogging,” the tactic of confronting politicians at public media events and forcing them into awkward policy debates while cameras look on. It’s a fascinating window into the physical processes involved in designing effective 21st century activism — but made all the powerful for the way that Barkan, his vocal abilities deteriorating as his muscles slowly give up, forces himself into the center of the action.
Whether he’s fighting to obstruct the confirmation of future Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh or storming the campaign headquarters of former Arizona Senator Martha McSally, Barkan struggles through obvious impediments to make his points through a delicate set of choroeagraphed maneuvers: When officials close the door on him, he wheels around on cue to face the cameras and keep the scene alive, directing the action in real-time.
The timeline of “Not Going Quietly” hampers some aspects of the drama, given that one of its key turning points is a midterm election victory that feels awfully distant and the story ends before the dramatic shift of the 2020 presidential election (originally, the documentary was set to come out before then). But Barkan emerges as a striking embodiment of the radicalized activism that evolved in opposition to the Trump era. After all, the guy was given three years to live one month before Trump’s election; the stakes for the future of his family, which grew with the additional of a second child during that time, couldn’t have been more striking. “The country was totally fucked,” Barkan recalls.
“Not Going Quietly” oscillates between the playful vibes of Barkan’s road trip — including one charming bit that finds him getting stoned after hours — and the harrowing impact of his disease, building up to the mounting confrontation with the decision to have a tracheotomy, which deprives him of his human voice. (A computer takes over, taking its cues from his eyes.) Aspects of this experience have been previously documented in movies like the acclaimed “Gleason,” about ex-NFL player Steve Gleason, and the lesser-seen (but equally worthy) “Transfatty Lives,” which the eponymous filmmaker actually directed in the midst of his illness.
Here, the gradual decline of Barkan’s ability to speak and move takes on a different kind of resonance: The movie makes its points in grand, emotional gestures more than policy nuances, but what it lacks in sophistication it makes up in immediacy. The drama acts as a visceral of ode to the nature of activism under dire circumstances: When Barkan is seen interviewing Warren, Kamala Harris, and other politicians for “Be a Hero” PSAs, their responses fade to the background. The movie doesn’t dwell on soundbites so much as the way Barkan has weaponized his conundrum to make these influencers take note.
“The weaker I get, the louder I become,” Barkan says, and the movie proves that assertion in Barkan’s climactic moment before Congress. Rather than focusing on him the whole time, Bruckman cuts to tense reaction shots of the speaker’s rapt audience. That’s the essence of “Not Going Quietly” as it pushes to showcase the undeniable depth of pain and sacrifice necessary for Barkan to get each point across. Not every rally or speech leads to overnight change, but when Barkan speaks, people listen.
“Not Going Quietly” premiered at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.