‘Mayor Pete’: Film Review

‘Boys State’ co-director Jesse Moss chronicles the historic year in which Pete Buttigieg went from outlier to legitimate contender in the Democratic presidential primaries in this documentary feature for Amazon.

There’s a firecracker of a character in Jesse Moss’ absorbing new Amazon documentary, Mayor Pete, and it’s not 2020 presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg or his supportive husband, Chasten, both of whom come across as compassionate, contemplative guys, driven by what they can do to bring change to an ailing America. It’s campaign communications director Lis Smith, a straight-shooting political animal who never minces words when pointing out Buttigieg’s campaign weak spots. “He’s coming across like the fucking Tin Man up there,” groans Smith during a debate prep in which she perceives the candidate’s muted emotional key as a drawback.

A lot more of Smith’s colorful candor would have given this informative chronicle of Buttigieg’s out-of-left-field run in the Democratic presidential primaries the punch it sometimes lacks. “You’re not a fucking anthropologist here,” snaps Smith during another moment of exasperation, when the candidate is rattling off bullet points like a policy wonk with little human connection. The good grace and forbearance with which the unfailingly calm Buttigieg receives his staffer’s blunt criticisms is among the most amusing — even endearing — insights of this intimate portrait.

Mayor Pete

The Bottom Line

A political story still being written.

Release date: Thursday, Nov. 12
Director: Jesse Moss
Writers: Amanda McBaine, Jesse Moss, Jeff Gilbert

Rated R,
1 hour 36 minutes

Following back-to-back premieres at the Chicago Film Festival and on opening night of the New York LGBTQ+ forum NewFest, Mayor Pete will be released globally Nov. 12 on Amazon Prime Video.

“This is the only chance you’ll ever get to vote for a Maltese American, left-handed, Episcopalian, gay war veteran mayor and millennial,” says Buttigieg in a lighthearted aside early on. That jokey acknowledgment alone hammers home the unprecedented nature of his candidacy for the White House, given both his youth and his emergence as the first openly LGBTQ American to throw his hat in the ring.

The film is built around a framing interview during which Buttigieg reflects on the campaign, and somewhat guardedly responds to speculation on another run for the Oval Office somewhere down the track. Perhaps the most revealing moment comes at the end, when the subject talks about the almost overwhelming experience of traveling the country and hearing ordinary Americans’ stories of hardship. He confesses that digesting the losses people have suffered as a direct result of policy failure is enough to break a person, explaining that only by controlling one’s emotional response can you be useful to voters. “But time is on my side,” he adds.

That sense of a political future in large part yet to be written places a slight limitation on Buttigieg as a documentary subject, as does his generally subdued manner. It perhaps would have been useful to include a taste of his dynamic post-campaign appearances on Fox News, eviscerating obtuse GOP mouthpieces without ever raising his voice or losing his cool. Buttigieg proved so erudite and efficient in those interviews, it made you wonder why the notoriously partisan network kept inviting him back.

But Moss and his co-writers, Amanda McBaine and editor Jeff Gilbert, have chosen to stick strictly to Buttigieg’s rise from small-town Indiana mayor to Democratic campaign hopeful. Only the coda of newly elected president Joe Biden nominating him as U.S. Secretary of Transportation nudges the narrative closer to the present.

Buttigieg’s background is widely known — the hometown boy who returned to South Bend and was elected mayor after serving with naval intelligence in Afghanistan and graduating from Harvard and Oxford, the latter as a Rhodes Scholar. He came out as gay in 2015, at the relatively advanced age of 33, and married Chasten Glezman, a schoolteacher and LGBTQ activist, in 2018. The couple recently became parents, though the film was completed before their family grew.

A handful of key threads come to define Buttigieg’s presidential campaign. One is establishing the legitimacy of his mayoral administration experience as grounding for higher government. South Bend’s 1950s heyday ended abruptly in the early ’60s when the Studebaker factory closed. Like with most dying Middle American communities, the only way for talented young people to achieve success was believed to be by getting out. But Buttigieg led by example, pushing business incentives to help boost the beleaguered economy. He suggested, early in his campaign, that D.C. could benefit from adopting some of the measures used by America’s best-run small towns.

When discussion turns to how much emphasis should be placed on his personal biography, Buttigieg attempts to reframe the narrative of keeping his sexuality hidden for much of his adult life, making that experience relatable to anyone who’s ever felt the stigma of being the “other.” He positions his coming-out story as an equivalent to what virtually everyone goes through while nailing down their identity, though, admittedly, this does seem a little wishy-washy and perhaps accounts for why some more politicized LGBTQ voters were skeptical about him.

While Chasten clearly remains the more forthright half of the couple in terms of queer positivity, it’s moving to see Buttigieg speak frankly at an LGBTQ event about the war he fought within himself through his teens and 20s, and the desperation he felt to deny his sexuality because of social conditioning.

Some of the biggest challenges of the campaign revolve around questions of character. Buttigieg acknowledges that he’s no Bill Clinton; he makes no claim to possess the charismatic gregariousness generally associated with front-rank political players. For his handlers, getting around the obstacle of having an introvert in a public-facing position is a considerable hurdle. But there’s plenty of evidence here to suggest that his kindness and self-effacing modesty actually enhance his appeal with people even in socially conservative Red states; that goes for the citizens of South Bend and various points across the campaign trail.

The one area where he particularly struggles as a candidate is in connecting with voters of color. The film acquires a sense of conflict by spending time on the shooting by white South Bend police officer Ryan O’Neill in June 2019 of Eric Logan, a Black citizen, which stirred an uproar over racism in local law enforcement that had long gone unaddressed. Buttigieg shows backbone by calling a town hall meeting in the midst of his presidential campaign to hear the grievances of Black constituents disillusioned after being told repeatedly to “trust the process.” But the failure to deal with racism in the police force during his time as mayor remains an open wound. The humility of Buttigieg’s response to a question concerning that issue during a televised debate — “I couldn’t get it done” — humanizes him perhaps more than any other moment here.

Moss breaks down the doc in chapters headed “One Year to Iowa Caucus” and so on, with the Buttigieg campaign getting wind in its sails from the surprisingly robust showing in that key early battleground, before his advantage began to slip in New Hampshire, Nevada and, decisively, in South Carolina.

The filmmakers — and their audience — might have wished for a more emotionally demonstrative reaction from Buttigieg as the path to victory grows narrower and the numbers become unequivocal. But that would be untrue to their subject, whose mild-mannered, thoughtful nature, even in the face of defeat, made him a refreshing antidote to the belligerent volatility of Donald Trump. Moss does, however, coax out the poignancy of Buttigieg’s retreat from the presidential race with effective use of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day.”

As a window into the campaign process, Mayor Pete doesn’t match the perspective or dramatic payoff of Moss’ last film, Boys State, co-directed with McBaine. But it does have the benefit of showing a man who seems destined to remain a force in American politics, growing into the role in real time.

Full credits

Distributor: Amazon
Production companies: Amazon Studios, Story Syndicate, in association with Mile End Films
Director: Jesse Moss
Writers: Amanda McBaine, Jesse Moss, Jeff Gilbert
Producers: Dan Cogan, Jon Bardin, Laurie David, Amanda McBaine, Jesse Moss
Executive producers: Regina Scully, Liz Garbus, Julie Gaither
Directors of photography: Jesse Moss, Thorsten Thielow
Editor: Jeff Gilbert
Music: Joe Wong

Rated R, 1 hour 36 minutes