Mini Film Review: Mayor Pete (dir. Jesse Moss)
Mayor Pete is a documentary of such little conviction that it borders on uselessness. It’s subject, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, is a nice man. He ran for president of the United States, so good for him. But he is not a compelling documentary subject. And in those moments that potentially are interesting, where director Jesse Moss trains his camera in on some of the murkier elements of political machinations, Moss ultimately turns away as if entirely uninterested in interrogating them.
This is strictly documentary as hagiography. Compare this so a film such as Marshall Curry’s 2005 doc Street Fight (about Cory Booker, a political personality whose edges have maybe been softened in the intervening years) and the distinction is stark. There is no grit on display here or even drama. It's been buffed and glossed to a neatly perfected shine—and the result is transparent as a tool of political propoganda for Buttigieg's inevitable next run as President.
The movie gives quite a startling insight into the Buttigieg process very early on, when the Presidential candidate’s husband actually informs the filmmaker that he has drafted some questions to ask. “Can he answer that?” we hear asked in return from the director. Rarely do films fumble so dramatically so quickly. That’s your job!
It doesn’t get worse, but it also doesn't get much better. In its best moments, Moss allows his camera to focus on the various campaign staff whose role it is to make this man appear electable. They tell him he is robotic and that he doesn’t show emotion. It unfortunately doesn’t linger on this uglier side of campaigning where people are essentially told to become a different person entirely in order to win—a theme that is incongruous with its repeated ideas of how Buttigieg had to hide who he was for so long under Don't Ask Don't Tell and through general societal homophobia. Rather, after every one of these moments, it shifts to Buttigieg on stage and his staff admiring his efforts. Compelling, this is not.
Buttigieg, too, is rarely off screen making this a film with little interest in the broader process circulating around him. We watch as his stocks rise in the polls, although we never get a glimpse at how this is happening beyond Mayor Pete himself going on TV (which anybody who’s worked on campaigns know is hardly the only way). We hear that his FOX News appearance rated highly, but you’ll be hard pressed to understand why or what that means. We hear that he struggles to appeal to black voters, but beyond a particularly robust townhall meeting following an officer involved shooting in his hometown, the film doesn’t reflect any of the struggle found there. It’s a puff piece through and through that will serve him for future runs at higher office.
Anybody watching Mayor Pete will know the outcome, of course. Pete Buttigieg did not win the nomination, although he did accept a role in President Biden’s cabinet. I wonder what North Bend thought about that. I wonder what anybody thought about that. The film doesn’t say. Or care. Like many things in Mayor Pete, these issues are better left in the rear-view and not dwelling on them. Progress!