Documentary dissects Mayor Pete’s historic campaign

Pete Buttigieg takes a selfie that includes a crowd of supporters in a scene from Mayor Pete. (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

By Richard Ades

Jesse Moss co-directed Boys State, which was probably the best 2020 documentary that wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award. Now he’s returned with Mayor Pete, another film that focuses on America’s political system. But while Boys State did so metaphorically, being set at a gathering of teenagers playing at being politicians, the new doc takes the direct approach.

Its subject is Pete Buttigieg, who, before becoming President Biden’s secretary of transportation, was the first openly gay person to run a major campaign for the presidency. Filmed in 2019 and early 2020, the documentary follows the then-mayor of South Bend, Indiana, as he takes his first plunge into the treacherous waters of the national political scene.

Though the result might not be quite as sublime as Moss’s earlier effort, it offers a behind-the-scenes look at a groundbreaking campaign that briefly seemed on the verge of upsetting a host of more-traditional candidates. The film makes it clear that Buttigieg accomplished this feat with help from advisers such as his communications director, Liz Smith, and even his husband, Chasten.

A graduate of Harvard and Oxford who speaks eight languages, as well as a former naval intelligence officer who saw active duty in Afghanistan, Buttigieg stood out from the field of candidates for reasons that went far beyond his sexual orientation. The film shows another difference: His calm and nuanced speeches were a far cry from the average politician’s promises and cliches. “I think you’re the real thing,” a middle-aged woman tells him after an early campaign appearance.

But the film also reveals that Buttigieg’s reluctance to divulge his emotions led some critics to paint him as cold and even robotic. As the first Democratic debate nears and Buttigieg prepares by taking part in practice debates, Smith can be seen pushing him to open up about his feelings. “He’s coming across as a f—ing tin man up there,” she complains, using an expletive that helps to earn the flick its “R” rating.  

Then, right before the debate, news arrives that a South Bend cop has shot and killed a Black man. Buttigieg holds a town meeting and invites residents to air their concerns, but the effort only succeeds in revealing the gulf between him and many members of the Black community. Though he’s later praised for his response to this issue when it inevitably comes up on the debate stage, his lack of minority support continues to dog him throughout the campaign.  

If there’s one element of Mayor Pete that may disappoint political junkies, it’s that it largely ignores the policy positions Buttigieg espoused and argued over with the other candidates. Instead, it focuses on the personal qualities that made him an unusual and historic candidate and will continue to set him apart if he ever decides to once again hit the campaign trail.    

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Mayor Pete (rated R) will premiere Nov. 12 on Amazon Prime Video.

Presidential rom-com mixes satire with sex and drug jokes

Long Shot
Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen) helps Secretary of State Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) loosen up in a scene from Long Shot.

By Richard Ades

The two main criteria for judging a romantic comedy are, naturally: (1) Is it romantic? And (2) is it funny?

In the case of Long Shot, the answer to both questions is “sometimes.”

Directed by Jonathan Levine (Snatched), the rom-com concocts a potentially intriguing matchup. On the one side is Secretary of State Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron), who begins planning a presidential run after learning the current commander-in-chief (Bob Odenkirk) won’t seek a second term. On the other side is Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen), a liberal journalist who leaves his job when his publication is sold to a conservative media conglomerate. When the two meet at a party and Charlotte realizes they were childhood neighbors, she impulsively hires Fred as a speechwriter.

On the surface, the glamorous, powerful Charlotte and the scruffy, laid-back Fred are a typical rom-com odd couple. Beneath the surface, however, there’s an actual connection. Years ago, 13-year-old Fred secretly had a crush on 16-year-old Charlotte, who served as his babysitter when she wasn’t running to be their school’s student-body president.

Now that they’ve been thrown together as adults, it’s obvious that Fred still has a crush on Charlotte, but he’s too aware of the difference in their positions to let on. Instead, he starts plying her for information about herself, explaining that a speechwriter needs to know his subject. Apparently charmed by his interest, Charlotte is happy to oblige. Even if you’re not a rom-com fan, you’ll have no trouble figuring out where this is headed.

Is Charlotte and Fred’s roundabout courtship romantic? Well, it may be for some, but not for me. It just seems too contrived and predictable, especially with sappy music telegraphing every development.

Well, is the film at least funny? Parts of it are, especially the early slapstick scenes featured in the commercials. Whether later scenes tickle your funny bone depends on your affinity for R-rated gags involving sex and drugs. They may produce a few reflexive chuckles, but they’re not nearly as satisfying as humor that grows organically out of characters and situations.

Appropriately for a film coming out in 2019, Long Shot also takes a stab at political satire, though its efforts are pretty tame compared to what’s aired on late-night TV. Like Donald Trump, Odenkirk’s President Chambers earned his fame on television (as an actor rather than a reality star). But unlike Trump, he has no political ambition and is simply using the presidency as a steppingstone to his actual career goal of breaking into the movies.

Screenwriters Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah likewise take aim at Trump’s favorite show, Fox & Friends, with a clone that lambastes liberals and feminists and is part of a network run by the Stephen Bannon-like Parker Wembley (Andy Serkis). To make sure the flick doesn’t alienate conservative viewers too much, though, their script aims other barbs at the liberal Fred, who is shamed for not knowing that his black best friend (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is a Republican—a Republican whose political philosophy is along the lines of “Believe in yourself.” Edgy!

Perhaps the movie makes the strongest political statements about the special challenges faced by a woman like Charlotte who’s trying to break through the ultimate glass ceiling. But it may go too far when it has Fred apologize for not realizing that such challenges sometimes force her to sacrifice her ideals. That’s probably not a message that real-life women candidates would appreciate.

Long Shot does benefit from two likable star turns. Theron adds enough humanity to the regal Charlotte to prevent her from becoming an ice queen, while Rogen plays the chemically adventurous Fred as an extension of his usual persona. It’s just too bad the script didn’t find more interesting ways for these two likable people to interact.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Long Shot (rated R) opened May 3 at theaters nationwide.