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.