Beto O’Rourke’s historic 2018 Senate run failed to topple incumbent Ted Cruz, but it certainly put Texas Republicans on notice, and provided the first genuine illustration of the state’s potential for its own blue wave. By the end of O’Rourke’s campaign, the charismatic El Paso native garnered four million votes, catalyzing a down-ballot effect that impacted local races and widened O’Rourke’s national profile to a point that instantly fueled speculation of a presidential run.
David Modigliani’s camera tagged along for much of this journey, and anyone just getting caught up on the Beto phenomenon — or still nostalgic for the euphoria of his race — will find their fix with the filmmaker’s “Running With Beto.” A straightforward overview that benefits from Modigliani’s access over the course of the campaign’s final 12-month stretch, the movie captures the emotional tenor of the campaign and underscores why O’Rourke’s tireless efforts never became an exercise in futility.
This sort of agitprop victory lap has its limitations, and Modigliani’s proficient fly-on-the-wall approach lacks the edge of the greatest campaign documentaries, but much of the movie’s gentler qualities reflect the tenor of O’Rourke’s upbeat campaign itself. Viewed on its own terms, “Running With Beto” consolidates the feel-good trajectory of O’Rourke’s run into an engaging package that showcases his galvanizing impact up close.
The movie revisits O’Rourke’s rise from obscure local figure to formidable candidate, tracking him from half-empty town hall sessions to addressing emphatic crowds that eventually fill stadiums. From a purely visual standpoint, the documentary illustrates the dramatic nature of O’Rourke’s growing base, while sketching out the key figures who worked on his campaign.
Restless campaign director Cynthia Cano emerges as one of the most intriguing supporting players, in part because of the extent to which Modigliani captures the usually affable O’Rourke giving her a hard time when he feels unprepared. She’s complimented by tireless young communications director Chris Evans, who films O’Rourke on a Facebook livestream for 24 hours straight and embodies the candidate’s appeal to younger voters. There’s enough footage of O’Rourke bumping up against his staffers to hint at the sheer intensity of the campaign trail, and it allows his off-the-cuff remarks to his staff before his concession speech infuse the story with an emotional foundation: “I know I was an asshole to be around sometimes,” he says, but they clearly adore him anyway.
Modigliani wisely avoids recapping some of the more superficial viral moments from O’Rourke’s campaign — skateboarding in the Whataburger parking lot and air-drumming to “Baba O’Riley” from behind the wheel of his car among them — but the movie succeeds at contextualizing his cool-kid brand. At one point, O’Rourke answers a legitimate question about how his teen experience in a punk-rock band informed his political ethos by explaining his opposition to corporate lobbying in Washington (O’Rourke declined corporate and PAC donations), and the crowd leans in. The movie makes the case for an earnest politician with nothing to hide by simply allowing his authenticity to coalesce in front of the camera.
Along the way, “Running With Beto” captures O’Rourke’s dramatic visit to an immigrant detention center, his ability to engage with Hispanic voters, and dense efforts to talk through a range of Democratic policies to every media outlet in his vicinity. And there’s no shortage of engaging interactions with his potential constituents, since O’Rourke visited all 254 counties over the course of a dizzying year. (In one amusing bit, he’s challenged by a staffer to name them all; it’s unclear from the sequence how far along he gets.)
“Running With Beto” offers scant representation of the Cruz contingency, though it finds one crucial vessel for the voice of opposition in the stepfather of Amanda Salas, a gay Hispanic woman who volunteered on O’Rourke’s campaign and was raised in a Republican family. Their living-room debate (which is surprisingly civil) epitomizes Texas’ emerging political duality, and speaks to the forward-thinking dialogue that O’Rourke’s campaign stirred up. But the movie’s true scene-stealer is Shannon Gay, a foul-mouthed feminist and military veteran who throws herself into every facet of the campaign and balances out the genial quality of “Running With Beto” with plenty of comedic asides (most of them relating to Ted Cruz).
Modigliani is not immune to the same fawning approach to his subject that afflicted national media, but the human-interest side of the documentary — glimpses of O’Rourke reading “The Illiad,” say, or playing basketball with his wife Amy and their young children — remain on the sidelines in this slick countdown to election night. “Running With Beto” encapsulates O’Rourke’s impact with headlines and media reports of a potential victory superimposed on aerial shots of various counties, devices that keep the story engaging while reflecting O’Rourke’s evolving confidence.
The documentary also hints at some mild criticism of the politician’s affable approach, once Cruz starts punching back in propagandistic advertisements while O’Rourke’s staffers hold back on adopting the same negative tone. The most intriguing moments come from the implication that such aggressive tactics really work, and might have yielded a different outcome last fall.
“Running With Beto” stops short of following the ex-candidate on his Kerouac-like journey across the state in the weeks following the election, while his fans begged him to step into the 2020 field. But it does wind its way toward a genuine reality check by following him home late at night, after he has told his thousands of supporters that he’s “so fucking proud of you” on national television.
After the kids go to bed, O’Rourke and his wife sit down and get real. “Maybe we did what we were supposed to do,” he says. Underscoring that point, “Running With Beto” works best when it ventures away from the candidate to let his volunteers do the talking. He may be leaving his future options open, but the movie concludes that O’Rourke’s own political ambitions matter less than the fighting spirit his campaign inspired — and how much it continues to linger in advance of the battles to come.
“Running With Beto” premiered at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival. It airs on HBO May 28.