With Mayor Pete, Boys State co-director Jesse Moss crafts another cognitively dissonant portrait of U.S. politics. It has the formal hallmarks of an inspiring story about hope for the future but, despite itself, actually reveals just what a rut we’ve dug ourselves into in this country. The film follows former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and current Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg as he runs for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, giving us the sort of “behind the scenes” look at politicking desired only by people who think politics begins and ends with electioneering.
That portion of politics that consists of actually governing, as suggested by both Mayor Pete and the documentary itself, is important insomuch as it feeds into one’s election-season image. The police killing that occurred in South Bend while Buttigieg was both mayor and still in the running for the nomination is a case in point. What seems to matter to Moss is Buttigieg’s public response, the honesty he projected, and the solemn words he intoned; this, rather than any act of governance, is the filmmaker’s idea of mayoral action.
We see Buttigieg face a tough town hall meeting and work on how he’s going to handle the issue at a debate, and through the logic of narrative culmination, we’re encouraged to feel like he’s done something significant when he makes a statement that sounds firm and sincere on stage, at which point the film moves on. Focused on the brave (and bravely calculated way) that its subject navigated his way out of that controversy, the filmmakers transform a man’s death into adversity faced by a political campaign with a progressive image.
The film’s approach is completely subsumed by the importance of the Mayor Pete persona as the means and ends of the candidacy, and particularly the relevance of Buttigieg’s status as the first openly gay candidate seeking a major party’s nomination. No doubt, a gay president would represent progress, and the strongest parts of the documentary are those that explore the significance and struggles particular to Buttigieg’s life as a gay man, and as one running for an election in America’s heartland. Indeed, the aspect of Mayor Pete that feels the least determined by the prerogatives of the campaign itself is the one in which Buttigieg’s husband, Chasten Buttigieg, begins interrogating the candidate about why the other (straight) candidates all have their spouses accompanying them on stage at rallies, while Chasten, notwithstanding a few carefully selected exceptions, must linger backstage.
Overall, though, the way that the film focuses on personality over policy is symptomatic of a problem in post-Obama Democratic politics, and which is embraced here as a virtue. Mayor Pete conceives of its subject’s identity as the primary, if not sole, contribution that a president should be expected to make to the nation. The viewer is positioned to think Buttigieg’s pleasant moderateness and unthreatening sheen of intellectuality should be enough to qualify him for the office. They’re the qualities that incline candidate Buttigieg toward speechifying without saying much of anything. Moss intercuts Buttigieg greeting everyday Midwesterners on the campaign trail with the candidate’s noncommittal pronouncements on politics (“We’re living in the kind of watershed moment that gave rise to the New Deal, or which gave rise to what I call the Reagan moment”), as if such studiously banal analyses of the situation constitute the political platform of a salt-of-the-earth reformer.
Buttigieg came in fifth place in the 2020 Democratic primary election, with under a million total votes and no clear primary victories, but you would never know that from watching Mayor Pete, which often scans as a victory lap for a candidate who lost. Moss elides any fact that might disturb the centrifugal bubble reality that his film constructs, which centers around Buttigieg as the new barrier-breaking candidate of destiny. Things are suspiciously un-concrete in this Mayor Pete-verse, and its lack of solid foundations would leave any semi-conscious viewer with some reasonable questions. For one, we’re told at one point that Pete’s popularity is surging, but why is the film so cagy about actual poll numbers? And if he raised the most money of any other candidate in one fiscal quarter, then why doesn’t this ostensibly fly-on-the-wall documentary perch itself on the walls of any fundraising dinners?
There’s an imprecise quality to most of these briefly cited milestones as we follow Buttigieg’s journey to being slightly less popular among Democrats than longtime Republican Mike Bloomberg. We get glimpses of other candidates, though these snippets often have a snide quality about them: an out-of-context dig about Buttigieg’s fancy fundraisers made by Elizabeth Warren during a debate, and an equally contextless clip of a seemingly petty Bernie Sanders saying that the Iowa Democratic Party made a mistake in determining the results of his and Buttigieg’s close race (there was, in fact, a counting error, and both Sanders and Buttigieg requested a recount, though the film isn’t forthcoming with this information).
One candidate that does comes off a bit better than these others is the eventual winner, Joe Biden, who pops by, clad in unaccustomed summertime business casual, during the Iowa State Fair to pat Buttigieg on the back a bit. “Such a good guy,” a grinning Buttigieg geekily and, in retrospect, wisely mutters to an assistant in full view of the camera. It’s a shamelessly sycophantic moment in a thoroughly sycophantic documentary, calculated to position the youthful Buttigieg as the heir apparent to the Obama-Biden legacy. Hardly anywhere else in this 96-minute campaign commercial is it more obvious that its purported look beyond the public image is all part of the electioneering apparatus.
Neither documentaries nor politics will ever be perfect, but in the realm of ideal forms, a documentary would be grounded in reality and politics would be grounded in policy. In accidentally illustrating the vacuousness of American politics in part through its own lack of interest in anything but constructed political personae and strategic maneuvering, however, Mayor Pete might be able to brag that it’s our benighted world’s version of the perfect documentary. After all, it represents the precise melding of content and form, a mostly substance-less movie about a mostly substance-less candidate.