Watching Beto O’Rourke’s presidential ambitions unravel in real time, it’s almost hard to remember the captivating magic he conjured during his campaign for the U.S. Senate, which ended just seven months ago. Enthusiasm has fizzled and O’Rourke has sunk in the polls as he struggles to make the case for why Democratic voters should choose him — a relatively undistinguished three-term congressman — from among almost two dozen senators, governors and one former vice president.
It’s not surprising, then, that O’Rourke was eager to tout the premiere of the Crooked Media-produced documentary released by HBO this week. Running With Beto, his campaign wrote in an email to reporters, “captures the historic grassroots energy that drove O’Rourke’s 2018 Senate campaign.”
That glowing endorsement tells you much of what you need to know about the film, a sentimental scrapbook of the former congressman’s longshot bid.
Filmmaker David Modigliani moved to Texas a decade and a half ago to pursue playwriting at the University of Texas, Austin. He thought he might write a play about the small town where George W. Bush purchased a ranch shortly before launching his bid for president, but ended up directing a documentary — the 2008 film Crawford — instead. The Boston native stuck around and, 10 years later, was on a baseball diamond in Austin playing against Los Diablitos de El Paso when he encountered the subject of his next film.
“Beto jumped up on a hay bale in the seventh inning stretch, brushed his hair aside, dirty uniform, and it’s like, ‘Oh, this guy’s a movie star.’ You could tell immediately that he was a generational political talent,” Modigliani recalls. “That was very clear to me.”
After following O’Rourke’s campaign for 19 months, Modigliani’s feelings about the candidate remain as ardent as ever, and they come across in the film. Modigliani is an independent documentarian, but it’s unclear what would have been materially different about Running With Beto if he were the campaign’s official videographer instead.
That is not to say the film isn’t useful — it’s nice to have such an artifact, in the same way it’s nice to have a wedding video to dig out every few years and remember what it felt like when everything was still full of hope and promise. Modigliani didn’t know for sure how the campaign would end when he began editing the film in May 2018, six months before the election. (Starting early was necessary, Modigliani explains, as he had more than 700 hours of footage by the end of the campaign and was determined to get the film out quickly.)
“Plan A was always that he was likely to lose this race,” Modigliani says. “He’s taking all these risks, he’s trying something new, it’s going to be a fascinating campaign, we’re going to follow him and we’re going to follow these grassroots organizers, and it’s going to be a great story, and he’s going to lose.”
There are lots of good documentaries about losing campaigns: Street Fight about Cory Booker’s unsuccessful bid for mayor of Newark, and Mitt, about Mitt Romney’s failed attempt for president, both of which Modigliani cites as influences. Stylistically, though, he says, he drew inspiration from D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 film Don’t Look Back about Bob Dylan’s first tour of the U.K.
“It’s just this cinéma vérité, immersive film following Dylan as he’s blowing up,” Modigliani says. “Navigating what does it mean to get all of this attention — to have people respond to us in this way? How do you navigate the press? And how do you navigate the fame?”
The problem in this case is that O’Rourke himself was already filming his Senate campaign, cinéma vérité-style, and beaming it out daily on Facebook Live and Instagram. There is little in the film that anyone couldn’t have seen in real time if they followed O’Rourke on social media. (Modigliani does weave in the stories of three O’Rourke supporters, but it feels as if their main purpose is to carry the emotional weight of O’Rourke’s eventual defeat.)
The most revealing moments of Running With Beto are the ones that hint at the essential tension of a candidate practically created by the press, who now appears at risk of being undone by it. In one instance, O’Rourke berates his road manager, Cynthia Cano, for not getting him to a campaign event early enough to meet with all of the local press; in another, for scheduling too many media interviews in a row.
“I’m having a super hard time right now,” O’Rourke vents from behind the wheel of a rental car in the latter moment. “To have, like, the Wall Street Journal reporter asking me 50 questions in an hour to then, right away sit down, in front of the NPR reporter and dance for a little while in front of him. Then don’t eat, get up and go into this town hall and try to be genuine and direct with people — there’s just no time for your brain to relax and unclench.”
It is probably not a coincidence that both of these tense moments concern the media, whose attention O’Rourke leveraged masterfully during his Senate campaign, but which has been less kind since he declared for president. There’s an obvious reason for the about-face: In Texas, O’Rourke was an underdog challenging a widely reviled figure on issues and terrain he knew by heart. But the same middle-of-the-roadness that made him a plausible, if still unlikely, candidate in a deep red state, makes him unpalatable to Democratic primary voters — particularly when there are so many other options from which to choose.
The documentary premiere at the South By Southwest film festival coincided with a splashy Vanity Fair cover for which O’Rourke has found himself apologizing (“I think it reinforces that perception of privilege,” he said on The View). The film enters wide release this week alongside a New Yorker profile in which O’Rourke blames the underwhelming response to his campaign on the media. “It has not gone as well as I would have wanted it to, in terms of my performance with the press,” O’Rourke tells William Finnegan.
He goes on to gripe that there were “thirty members of the press, in your face, at the first event, at the second event, at the third, and then day after day after day, and asking almost nothing about anything that we just experienced together in that room, in that coffee shop or that tavern or in that home, but things that may have been popping up on the news that day, or things I may have done 35 years ago.”
O’Rourke’s problem, it seems, is that these reporters aren’t filming his town halls cinéma vérité style, sans comment or context.
When it comes down to it, what the O’Rourke campaign likes about the documentary is also its chief failing: the tight focus it keeps on his soaring rhetoric, its reluctance to dig much deeper into O’Rourke’s personal background, his voting record or actual policy prescriptions. If Modigliani — and many national outlets who covered O’Rourke’s Senate campaign, including Rolling Stone — had applied a more critical eye at that time, he would no doubt be better prepared for the less friendly coverage he’s receiving now.
Modigliani may not have known how the campaign would turn out, but the viewers do. And many are likely to be disappointed he elected to end filming when he did — one can imagine that the weeks and months that followed O’Rourke’s devastating loss, as he waded through the process of deciding to seek the Democratic nomination, would have made for an incredibly compelling material. For what its worth, Modigliani says he has no interest in following O’Rourke’s presidential campaign — “I was most interested in the origin story from this guy going from a virtual unknown to a national sensation” — which is also too bad, because the more complicated, messier story is one worth watching unfold.