Like Robert Drew’s landmark Primary, Jesse Moss’s Amazon Prime documentary Mayor Pete is an insider’s portrait of a campaign for the Democratic nomination: the eternal political sausage-making of stump speeches and rope lines, mock debates and televised ones, meetings with consultants and bleary-eyed tracking of poll numbers.
But while Drew’s account of the John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey battle in 1960 favored a judicious, vérité objectivity, Moss grows closer to his subject, Pete Buttigieg, in the course of filming. He sits down with the candidate, who was the mayor of South Bend, Ind., and his husband, Chasten, for interviews, which he intersperses into a chronicle of Mayor Pete’s nearly yearlong run for the 2020 nomination.
This decision, while still producing an insightful and revealing documentary, splits the difference between fly-on-the-wall non-interference and reportorial probing. The result can feel too insular. If you’re already breaking the conventions of the invisible documentarian, why not sit down with others in Buttigieg’s orbit, including his rivals in the race?
The other question is, why Pete, and not, say, Sanders, Warren or Biden? No matter whom Moss chose to shadow for a year, there would be a lack of suspense when the movie screens a year-and-a-half later. In this case, we know it ends in failure, like the overwhelming majority of presidential runs do. This can be a dry movie. Its most riveting sequence is surely the moment before the presidential debate at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center, when the candidate, his immediate advisers and Moss’s crew get stuck in a faulty, lurching elevator (way to go, Florida!). Spoiler alert: They make it out OK.
But as a dyed-in the-wool 2020 Bernie Sanders supporter for whom Mayor Pete represented a wishy-washy centrism, I came out of Moss’s doc with a newfound respect for his subject. Buttigieg’s oratory captures the soaring optimism of the young Obama. He speaks in paragraphs, not sound bites, and he comes across as a genuinely caring person — a comforter-in-not-yet-chief who listens to, and handles, criticism. That, combined with his innate nature as an introverted policy wonk, is the mixture we should want out of a president: brains and heart trumping gut and ego.
Moss’ camera follows Buttigieg doing normal human things — running a load of laundry, playing with his dogs, riding the subway — as well as the obligatory campaign kabuki of telegenically eating unhealthy Iowan food and patiently answering umpteen questions about whether the country is “ready” for an openly gay president. At one point, outside a campaign event, a protestor holds a sign urging attendees to remember Sodom and Gomorrah, while an actor flagellates a cross-bearing Jesus impersonator behind him.
It would be laughable if it weren’t so hateful, but the gulf between lazy journalists’s questions and hostile performance art is not a wide one: The candidate’s homosexuality couldn’t be more irrelevant to how he would govern, and Mayor Pete is another reminder of how un-evolved so much of this country remains.
The paradox is that Buttigieg’s gayness is indeed vital to his backstory. In one of the movie’s more revelatory moments, he tells the audience at an LGBTQ-supportive dinner that during his inchoate years in the closet, if he could have cut out his homosexuality with a knife, he would have done it. We see Chasten urge him to put his sexuality forward more in his speeches, to act as an inspirational avatar for the millions of LGBTQ youth with dreams of higher office in a country that’s clearly not “ready” for it.
But, although Buttigieg may be gay, he’s also a beneficiary of white privilege. During the primary campaign, a Black man was killed by a white police officer in South Bend, and in the film’s cringiest sequence, Buttigieg returns to his city to field questions — and accusations of mayoral indifference — from angry Black constituents. Part of why Buttigieg disappeared so quickly from the polls after his caucus victory in Iowa was his inability to connect to people like this, despite saying many of the correct things in his speeches. Black activists bristled at the lack of understanding, of wokeness, in his engagement with them. “Make sure it doesn’t read as very white,” says an adviser during a moment of debate prep.
The LGBTQ audiences aspirationally looking to him, the Black voters seeking a president who understands the systemic racism undergirding society, the white working-class whose votes he needs but who would rather such issues remain dormant — these are the constituencies any candidate seeking the Democratic nomination must deftly juggle in this fraught zeitgeist. Buttigieg had his unique pluses and minuses, but he was far from squaring this circle. It’s a challenge that will continue to define Democratic campaigns in the immediate future, and any candidate, including a re-election-seeking Joe Biden, should find this imperfect movie instructive.
MAYOR PETE. Director: Jesse Moss; Distributor: Amazon Studios; Rated R; Opens: Now playing on Amazon Prime