Running With Beto
2019, NR, 92 min. Directed by David Modigliani.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., May 17, 2019
It's easy to see why Texas voters fell in love with Democratic congressman Beto O'Rourke during his unsuccessful 2018 race to dislodge Ted Cruz, the Republican junior senator for Texas. Affable, educated, rangy, goofily handsome and politically seasoned, he was JFK without the plutocratic shadows, Gary Hart without the scandals, Robert Altman's Tanner '88, but real.
It's also easy to see why he's become a political afterthought in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, his easy energy written off as inappropriate, the actions of a dilettante. However, Austin director David Modigliani's Senate campaign diary Running With Beto is a timely reminder that what has made him mocked on the national stage – the free-form speeches, standing on car roofs, that dewy-eyed openness – led him to within striking distance of a once-unassailable opponent.
Modigliani's fly-on-the-wall documentary verges toward the hagiographic, but that's not the most damning criticism, because he makes the case of O'Rourke's quiet charisma. There are no campaign meltdowns, even when he has moments of frustration with his staff; and, it must be said, they with he, as the panic sets in that the "stay positive" message may need a little more steel and venom. But it's that relentless optimism that inspires the trio of supporters who find themselves transformed into activists: the school kid who is tired of gun violence; the young woman in the Valley, determined to turn out the perennially elusive Hispanic voting bloc; and the wry resident of Bulverde, who sticks a massive, homemade Beto sign on her roof because there's no way her Trump-loving neighbors can do a damn thing about it.
Running With Beto is a reminder that the current national image of O'Rourke does not mesh with the candidate that inspired so many Texans. It will also remind Texas voters of the real importance of O'Rourke's run – that it wasn't about one day, or one vote, or one race. There are Democrats in office around Texas (and arguably on Capitol Hill) who are there solely because of the O'Rourke campaign's get-out-the-vote campaign. Moreover, the reaction of the loyalists on election night wasn't what Texas Dems have come to expect – a sense of hopes crushed. Instead, they weren't even going to dust themselves down. O'Rourke changed the political landscape in Texas, and the perception of it as bluer than blue. He also created a new campaign infrastructure, separate to the moribund state party, and if there's a major failing of Modigliani's documentary, it's that he gets so caught up in the personal that he never really has time for that kind of conflict, or the structural impact of the campaign. It may also serve as key leverage in the debate about whether O'Rourke should continue in his seemingly doomed presidential campaign, or pivot back toward another U.S. Senate run, this time against John Cornyn. Modigliani has described Running With Beto as a complete document; however, if its purpose is to explain O'Rourke's strengths as a candidate, it makes a solid argument that his aspirations should go back to his tactical strengths, and his ambition switch from nationwide back to statewide.
For an interview with director David Modigliani, read "In Beto O'Rourke's Passenger Seat," March 8.