Jesse Moss’s documentary offers more insight into the man than his policies.
On April 14th, 2019, Pete Buttigieg announced his campaign for President of the United States of America. This came as a surprise for the public at large. He had little experience–his previous government position was Mayor of South Bend– and a minimal national profile. Additionally, he was young–just 37 at the time– and the first openly gay presidential candidate in American history.
Despite being a long-shot, he still managed to gain a sizable following, even winning the Iowa Caucus. However, his surprise frontrunner status was short-lived. After placing fourth in the South Carolina primary less than three weeks later, he bowed out of the race in March of 2020.
The details of Buttigieg’s campaign are common knowledge to anyone paying even the most cursory amount of attention to the 2020 presidential race. What many likely didn’t know was that during his try for the White House, documentary filmmaker Jesse Moss had been on-hand to capture everything for posterity. The result is Mayor Pete, a documentary that aims to shed life on Buttigieg as a person, not just a politician.
Indeed, there’s hardly any politics mentioned in its 100-minute runtime despite being a movie centered around a Presidential campaign. So if you’re looking for information on Buttigieg’s policies or track record, you won’t find much. Instead, Mayor Pete focuses on how he balances the American public’s expectations for presidential candidates with his more introverted and somewhat stiff personality.
The lack of political focus makes sense. Mayor Pete comes with a built-in audience of Buttigieg supporters who are either knowledgeable of his policies or only seeking a feel-good story about the first somewhat successful gay candidate. The documentary has no desire to educate anyone on the merits of its subject, preferring to craft a compelling story.
Fortunately, Moss well utilizes the campaign trail to achieve these ends. The result is an engaging, if somewhat standard, narrative arc. Starting with the humble beginnings of Buttigieg’s candidacy, we watch him struggle with his somewhat robotic mannerism (his communications director even calls him “the fucking tin man”) and his failure with connecting with black voters.
The documentary has no desire to educate anyone on the merits of its subject, preferring to craft a compelling story.
Still, despite some reservations from his staff, Buttigieg manages to make a great impression on televised debates and town halls. He further surprises with solid poll numbers and an early victory that few expected. For a brief time, Mayor Pete seemed poised to be a significant factor in the 2020 Presidential race.
Inevitably, though, the good times come crashing down when Buttigieg concedes. Nevertheless, the film still ends with a hopeful moment with his ascension to Secretary of Transportation, picked by former rival Joe Biden.
Mayor Pete handles Buttigieg’s political ascent with enough aplomb that even his detractors will find it an entertaining watch. Despite Moss’ fly-on-the-wall style camerawork, the editing makes everything feel more cinematic than documentarian. Moss and editor Jeff Gilbert use montage and music to steer the audience into viewing their subject in a positive light. This is most obvious in the peppy debate montage that accompanies Buttigieg’s upswing of popularity and the ironic use of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” to score his concession. It’s manipulative, sure, but at least it makes for good TV.
What feels more honest is how it depicts Buttigieg and his husband Chasten. While Mayor Pete doesn’t show many intimate moments between the couple, what it does is endearingly sweet. We see them on date nights or cuddling each other after a long day. One particularly effective scene shows Buttigieg playing with Chasten’s pinky to cheer him up. It’s a small gesture, but its idiosynchronicity shows a more intimate side to the couple in a way that a thousand declarations of love simply cannot.
Of course, a politician’s personal life is only half the story. The real judgment of their life is how their policies affect real people. Here, Mayor Pete does acknowledge some of the controversies that followed him. Chief among these is how he has failed to address racial inequalities within South Bend. These inadequacies came to a head when Buttigieg left the campaign trail for a town hall after white police officer Ryan O’Neil killed black South Bend resident Eric Logan.
Both at the town hall and in some one-on-one interaction with black constituents, we are shown how people of color feel that Buttigieg doesn’t represent them. While Pete and Chasten assure the audience that Buttigieg is working on addressing racial inequities, Mayor Pete is unafraid to show that either he is failing or not trying hard enough. It’s refreshing to see the documentary turn a critical eye on its subject, complicating an otherwise positive narrative.
Less complicated is how Mayor Pete engages with Buttigieg’s homosexuality and its effect on the campaign. The documentary wants to place Buttigieg’s popularity solely on the side of a win for LGBT+ rights. Scenes showing Chasten giving a talk to a group of gay youths and Buttigieg making teary-eyed platitudes about how queer kids have someone to look up to underpin this narrative.
Any negative discussion of Buttigieg’s sexuality comes from your stereotypical conservative Christians, including a preacher who claims that every vote for Buttigieg is a whip on Christ’s back. Missing from the film is any of the criticism other LGBT people had of Buttigieg and his rather heteronormative views. Of course, the lack of dissenting queer voices may be unintentional. Almost all the material not filmed by Moss came from mainstream television. The press largely eschewed discussions of divisions within the queer community concerns Buttigieg’s run.
Mayor Pete doesn’t intend to cover the totality of Buttigieg’s life or political career, but rather glimpse a specific point in time. The film glosses over Buttigieg’s political life before the campaign and only hints at his possible future. Moss only gives us a few months in time in which we are to judge him.
The narrow focus may annoy those who want a more thorough look into a political up-and-comer. It’s evident that this documentary is positive PR. But while Mayor Pete is, in many ways, just an extended campaign for Buttigieg’s future political aspirations, it’s still an entertaining movie. And that’s enough to persuade me to give it a vote.
Mayor Pete takes its place behind the podium on November 12th on Amazon Prime.