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Running With Beto arrives in an awkward position. As a movie being released in 2019 about a failed 2018 Senate campaign headed by a charismatic Texas underdog, it would be easy for Running With Beto to be DOA. Fortunately, director David Modigliani avoids delivering a stillborn time capsule and provides us with a candid, compelling watch.
DIRECTOR: David Modigliani
This humanist doc takes a compelling look at Betomania.
The film is distributed by HBO but feels as grassroots as O’Rourke’s campaign. Chronicling his small beginnings of speaking in tiny town halls and officially getting on the ballot, the film is as honest and straightforward as the public image O’Rourke has cultivated.
The opening shot of Running With Beto is a direct reference to one of the campaign’s iconic elements: a highlight reel of O’Rourke’s endearing moments on Facebook Live juxtaposed with choice conservative quotes such as “liberal Democrats don’t mess with Texas.”
Seeing this film make its world premiere in the Paramount Theater in Austin, Texas, during SXSW on Saturday, a feeling of good faith was wholeheartedly palpable in person. After the screening, an audience member directly asked O’Rourke when he would announce his 2020 presidential campaign. O’Rourke very quickly and obviously skirted this question despite an email from Deputy Campaign Manager Cynthia Cano which alluded to “Beto’s big announcement” being sent out to supporters literally during the screening.
The structure of the documentary correlates with one of the crucial tenets of O’Rourke’s campaign: It was never about him. It was about the people fighting for him. The majority of interviews with O’Rourke occur from the front seat of O’Rourke’s car while the Senate hopeful drives between Texas counties. While we do receive some self-mythologizing directly from him, this takes a back seat to individuals who introduce new topics of discussion but in no way feel like plot devices.
Amanda Salas, an organizer and voter registration advocate, introduces the problem of an overwhelming number of adults not registered to vote in Texas as well as the issue of having radically different political views than your parents. Teenage Marcel McClinton, organizer of a ‘Die-In’ protest in Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) office wherein students affected by gun violence symbolically lay down and “die,” is skeptical of O’Rourke initially. McClinton functions as an audience surrogate of sorts, and is gradually charmed by O’Rourke’s authenticity.
The undeniable breakout star is superfan and volunteer Shannon Gay. Almost all instances of raucous laughter from the crowd came after a quip from Gay. One of the loudest laughs came after Gay said she was driving into Bulverde, Texas, or as she referred to it, “Trump-ghanistan” to put up a “Beto for Senate” sign.
A sense of melancholy begins to creep up toward the latter half of the film. The documentary is split up by markers counting down to the date of the election. Knowing the end result, a small sense of futility is unavoidable for those who were rooting for the guy. As momentum builds, the lack of a satisfying crescendo when O’Rourke loses the election would destroy a lesser documentary.
This feeling dissipates in the film’s final act, however. It both presents O’Rourke as a larger-than-life figure when he’s speaking to an enormous crowd at the Texas Democratic Convention and as a deeply vulnerable man when he’s grappling with the stress of being deprived of communication with his family. The film’s decision to include so much of O’Rourke after losing the election cements the man’s humanity as a vital part of both his campaign and this documentary.
Ignacio Martinez is a reporter specializing in online gaming and political communities. His work has previously appeared in the Texas Observer and on the airwaves at KVRX 91.7 FM. He is based in Austin, Texas, and you can follow him on Twitter at @NacioMartinez.