A Pete Buttigieg documentary is, on some level, a step backwards for director Jesse Moss, who goes from “Boys State” one year to boy mayor the next, but there’s a natural kinship between these two films about the present and future of American politics, both of which paint scrappy vérité portraits of young men as they negotiate their own personal identities while trawling for votes in a country where identity has become the ultimate campaign issue. If the stakes are exponentially higher in “Mayor Pete,” however, you’d never know it from watching the movie’s unflappable namesake as he explodes onto the national scene and challenges heavyweights like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren for the top spot on the Democratic ticket.
Moss’ spry but often superficial film purports to explore what it’s like for an actual human being to run for the highest office in the land, and yet the competency and boy-scout-in-search-of-a-merit-badge resolve that (briefly) turned Buttigieg into an unexpectedly popular alternative to Donald Trump is also what renders him such an impenetrable subject for a documentary. Buttigieg isn’t robotic in the same way as so many politicians twice his age are — indeed, even the most intimate moments of this fully authorized but convincingly transparent film reaffirm the gee-whiz realness that he exuded on the campaign trail — but “what you see is what you get” is a much better incentive to vote for someone than it is to watch a movie about them.
“He comes off like the fucking tin man up there!” Buttigieg’s campaign manager laments in the middle of debate prep at one point, and he comes off like the fucking tin man in here, too. But how much heart can a presidential candidate afford to have these days, and to what extent should voters believe that it beats with anything but ambition?
From the moment that “Mayor Pete” begins, it’s hard to tell if it’s a surface-level documentary — one that follows Buttigieg’s Cinderella story campaign in linear fashion from its humble beginnings to its anticlimactic end — or if Buttigieg simply refuses to let the world have a deeper glimpse at what makes him tick. His cherubic face wears the same calm smile whether he’s making lunch in his Indiana home or making history on CNN, just as his voice maintains the same quizzical stillness whether he’s delivering a powerful speech about how he once wanted to “cut the gay out of himself,” or being challenged about that choice of words by his partner in a private conversation afterwards. Is Buttigieg saying that he struggled with thoughts of suicide before he came out? The fact that his winsome husband Chasten is asking that question himself suggests that Buttigieg is a closed book even when the cameras aren’t rolling. It’s a poignant moment, but also one typical of a film whose subject clams up whenever he feels exposed.
Buttigieg only has five people on his team when “Mayor Pete” begins, and it’s possible that he only agreed to star in a “Primary”-esque portrait of his very own because he never imagined how successful his campaign would become. Nevertheless, his ambivalence over how best to present himself to the voting public ironically becomes more compelling than whomever he might be underneath. After decades spent wrestling with his sexual orientation in secret, to what extent should he include it as part of his pitch to the general public? For some people it’s barely even a footnote, Buttigieg surmises, but for others it’s everything. He wants both of those categories’ votes (there’s a third swath of Americans, of course, but Mayor Pete knows a lost cause when he sees one).
There’s obvious historical value to any film that offers a fly-on-the-wall look inside the campaign of the first openly gay candidate to earn state delegates, and that takes some of the pressure off Moss to frame Buttigieg’s run as some kind of triumphant ode to progressivism. Some, but not all. Consciously or not, this admiring portrait can’t help but feel like an ad for Buttigieg’s next attempt at the throne, and the closest it comes to painting the politician in a bad light is during the South Bend town hall he decides to host after a Black man named Eric J. Logan is murdered at the hands of local police. The community’s long-simmering anger erupts at Mayor Pete, and all he can do in the moment is to sit there and take the heat.
But Buttigieg’s character really isn’t on the table here; we don’t learn much about him that we didn’t know before, only that he genuinely seems to be the same guy he played on TV. A brief prologue in which Chasten and Moss discuss the film and strategize about how to draw Buttigieg out of his shell is enough to suggest that vérité may not have been the ideal approach for such an inexpressive subject, but the demands of a busy campaign schedule would surely have dashed any greater degree of the candidate’s participation (even if he’d been willing to surrender to it).
“Mayor Pete” is at its most absorbing during the rare moments when it hones in on what Buttigieg’s accomplishment required of him, and what it might possibly mean for others like him. Of course, there are really only so many people like Pete Buttigieg. You could probably count the number of elder millennial Rhodes Scholar, War in Afghanistan vet, mini-major city mayors on a single finger — a fact that’s lost on neither Moss nor his subject.
As a gay man running for president in a country that clings to its prejudices as if they were guns, Buttigieg is understandably preoccupied with leveraging his differences into strengths. He’s forthright about his sexual orientation and proud of his marriage, but Buttigieg’s unspoken wariness at being labeled “the gay candidate” is emphasized by Chasten’s more enthusiastic engagement with the community. A scene in which South Bend’s first mister visits queer kids at an Iowa summer camp is maybe the most charmingly unforced moment ever captured by this kind of campaign doc, and it stands in stark contrast to the Pinter-esque moment later on in which Buttigieg sidesteps Chasten’s observation that every other candidate plans to have their spouse onstage after one of the debates.
Elsewhere, Buttigieg justifies the unprecedented leap he’s trying to take from mayor to president by insisting that it’s not “a Great Man thing” — that some otherness in the Oval Office might be what America needs right now — and it’s easy enough to accept that both of those things can be true at the same time. It’s too soon to say if Buttigieg will ever be a Great Man, though it’s to his credit that “Mayor Pete” renders him nothing less than an imperfectly decent one. For now, all we can say for certain is that he’ll never be the subject of a great documentary.
“Mayor Pete” premiered at the 2021 Chicago International Film Festival, and will screen at Newfest later this week. It will be available to stream on Amazon Prime starting Friday, November 12.