Lack of access obviously isn’t a problem for HBO’s “Pelosi in the House,” a Nancy Pelosi doc that was directed by the Speaker’s daughter, Alexandra (an accomplished filmmaker whose credits include “The Trials of Ted Haggard” and “Homeless: The Motel Kids of Orange County”). On the contrary, this superficial and misshapen portrait of America’s second-longest-tenured female Democrat suffers from too much of it, as the younger Pelosi has been so close to her mom for so long that she appears to have lost perspective on what the rest of us might find interesting about her.
Another explanation: The director is (understandably) too protective of her subject to risk making a film that leaves the Speaker vulnerable to attack or arms her mouth-foaming enemies on the fascist side of the aisle with any free ammunition. Or maybe the problem is that — even though her mom is now 82 — Alexandra can’t keep up with her. “For my entire adult life, I’ve been two steps behind you with this camera,” the younger Pelosi says at the start of the film as she races through the Capital after her mother on the night of Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address. “You walk at a pace.” The elder Pelosi responds without missing a step: “I’m a workhorse, not a show horse.” That much, at least, this documentary makes clear.
Even clearer is the fact that “Pelosi in the House” — some version of which seems to have been in the works since long before Trump’s presidency — was hijacked by the Trump insurrection, harrowing footage of which Pelosi has previously shared with the United States House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack.
The dumbest coup attempt in recorded history casts a long shadow over this film (as does the recent violence against the Speaker’s husband Paul, who appears in many of the film’s most engaging moments), and the video that Pelosi captured from inside the Capital that day is undeniably remarkable for both its tension and its insight. If the first two-thirds of the documentary paints the Speaker as an iron-willed bureaucrat who impersonally — and without ideology — regards the people’s business as just another job to be done, the final stretch all but affirms that portrayal at gunpoint.
The urgent and humane concern that Pelosi displays for Mike Pence’s safety as she snaps into a Slim Jim and calls the former Vice President from a bunker under the streets of Washington epitomizes the ethos of a career politician who’s seldom allowed emotion to interfere with her core beliefs, even when her unwillingness to do so has subjected her to scorn and protests from within her own party. “Pelosi in the House” is unlikely to change anyone’s mind about the Speaker — those who think her spineless or incapable of recognizing the urgent peril of our times will probably be unmoved by the film’s implicit suggestion that relentless vote-seeking is more effective than moral outrage — but there’s something to be said for a Speaker who cares more about the House than she does keeping her room in it.
Regardless of your feelings about what Pelosi has done in her time there, that much comes through. It’s pretty much the only possible takeaway from the more biodoc-afflicted sections of her daughter’s film, which race through the Speaker’s childhood as the daughter of a mayor, her appointment as the first female Speaker of the House, and her unwavering determination to pass the Affordable Care Act at a speed that ultimately makes her entire life feel like a preamble to her role on January 6.
We glean that she’s a workaholic, a diagnosis that’s vaguely tinged with Alexandra’s pride and sadness in equal measure (the doc never makes good on the mother-daughter intimacy promised by its opening moments), and that the stakes of her particular job don’t change the all too relatable conditions under which she does it. The most illuminating footage in the film might be where Pelosi is arguing with President Obama or someone on the phone in her living room while her husband is on the phone with someone else about repairing their TV. Her grandkids grow a little older in every scene — they’re rampaging tykes when the movie begins and teenagers by the time it’s over — and it’s tempting to wonder if she noticed. Pelosi seems to be far more involved with her family than her daughter’s film lets on, but there isn’t the slightest hint about the role she plays in their lives beyond the example she sets. The same could be said about the character of her pre-Speaker political career, which the movie effectively reduces to footage of people doing karaoke to “My Girl” at one of her victory parties. Instead, we get footage of Pelosi meeting the Pope and the Pope asking her to pray for him.
“I didn’t choose this life,” Pelosi says at a certain point, “it chose me.” This film about her feels similarly powerless in the face of history, as whatever story the younger Pelosi was trying to tell about her mom in hindsight is capsized by the weight and immediacy of the insurrection. A better approach might have been to split this into a two-part, four-hour HBO event that devoted equal time to Pelosi’s career and that fateful day at the Capital, as this documentary fails to strike the balance necessary to give it any kind of meaningful shape or guiding purpose. In trying to thread the needle between a tribute and a testimony, “Pelosi in the House” ultimately succeeds as neither.
“Pelosi in the House” premieres on HBO and HBO Max at 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday, December 13.