After viewing Running with Beto, David Modigliani’s documentary about Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke’s attempt to unseat Senator Ted Cruz in 2018, I was left wondering: Had I just seen an actual documentary or a somewhat predictable political drama shot in the documentary style popularized in Michael Ritchie’s 1972 Robert Redford vehicle, The Candidate? Like Redford’s Bill Mackay, Beto O’Rourke projects youthful good looks, progressive (at least on screen) political views and a casual style matching the zeitgeist of his era. Sadly, like Mackay, he also comes across as an example of style over substance.
In theory, O’Rourke’s initial visceral appeal should have the Gen X and older Millennial crowd standing at attention in fist-pumping rapture. The film shows him citing his 1990’s grunge band Foss as an influence on his political career in an early campaign stump speech. O’Rourke claims that experience taught him how to organize a campaign much like he did a tour. For the most part, his audience seems transfixed, waiting for their favorite song in the encore, but still not listening closely to the lyrics. Like a college student body president, O’Rourke has energy and enthusiasm but he is short on delivering a concrete message. With the avuncular and somewhat creepy Cruz as an opponent, he is quick to project himself as the one who will stand up to the Dean to ensure his classmates have free meals in the cafeteria once a week, and a chance to write course evaluations that will be taken seriously.
In Cruz, O’Rourke has the perfect comic foil. Known to the audience as a failed presidential candidate occupying the hard right of the Republican party, the pudgy senator is Penguin to Beto’s El Paso Bruce Wayne. In one pivotal scene, where the two debate, O’Rourke defies his strategy to run a clean campaign by referring to his opponent by his common nickname, “Lying Ted” out of frustration with his duplicitous political attacks during the evening. Like the carefully edited profanities that show him to be just authentic enough, Beto’s transgression venial and easily forgivable, much like his muted criticism of his staff in a heated car ride to another campaign site.
Like many documentaries purporting to give an authentic behind-the-scenes view of political campaigning and the ordinary lives of politicians, Running with Beto falls short of authenticity. At one point one of his campaign organizers and the family of a young LGBT woman from a Republican family debate the ongoing refugee crisis at the Mexican border. When someone remarks how the conversation did not escalate to the usual yelling and screaming, the woman points to the presence of cameras.
Therein lies the problem. Carefully edited scenes of O’Rourke’s supportive wife Amy talking to their three children are too-perfectly orchestrated, so the audience is never sure whether they are just part of a larger campaign ad for his current run for the national Democratic leadership. His public lament about missing his children seems closely tied to the premature death of his father, a man who was both an obvious mentor, but also a source of external conflict.
Running with Beto is most effective when it looks at the smaller players behind the scenes of O’Rourke’s campaign. His media strategist is young enough to be carded at any Texas bar, and has the giddy enthusiasm of a teenager sending his first Tweet. A foul-mouthed military widow, lacking in political subtlety but committed to the same DIY approach to campaigning as her mentor, offers comic relief. Survivors of various school shootings are present throughout most the film, meant to lend legitimacy to the candidate’s stance on gun control, and an LGBT organizer must deal with the consistent frustration of political apathy in her county.
Ultimately, like O’Rourke’s campaign, the film comes close to winning the audience over – but fails. Seduced by his Kennedy-like appeal and youthful energy, I too was initially an O’Rourke fan, overlooking his inconsistent political positions on health care and abortion rights by justifying them as a means to get elected in a state where Democrats have had little recent political success. To his credit, O’Rourke came close to achieving what few had done in his state in a quarter century, while galvanizing many Latinx voters to take part in the political process for the first time in years.
Still, something seemed to be missing and if his current level of support in the race for the Democratic nomination is any indicator, I am clearly not alone. Despite a grassroots campaign financed by individual donations and fueled by takeout food, Beto O’Rourke’s attempt to look like an authentic political outsider seems contrived.
There is a scene near the middle of The Candidate in which Redford’s Bill Mackay laughs uncontrollably after a boom mike falls during a recorded television segment. It is the one moment in this fictional the campaign when the candidate’s carefully controlled political machine falls victim to a spontaneous reaction to a random event. While Running with Beto might be an entertaining look at an attempted political upset, it falls short of providing an honest view of the flaws of its principal character, and in so doing leaves the audience questioning his sincerity.