Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
Jesse Moss recently won the Emmy for Outstanding Documentary for his film Boys State (2020), which followed a mock political campaign among teenagers. Some people thought it was good enough to be nominated for an Academy Award. Moss’ follow-up isn’t getting that same buzz. It doesn’t appear to be as good as Boys State. His follow-up is about the actual 2020 Presidential campaign and specifically the Democratic Primary. It’s ironic that Moss’ film about a fake campaign was more real than his film about a real campaign. His previous film was more insightful and enlightening. This film is not.
Pete Buttigieg is from South Bend, Indiana. He was the mayor there until he decided to run for president of the United States in 2019. The film states that its beginning is one year before the Iowa Caucus. Moss’ cameras must have jumped aboard to follow Buttigieg for that entire year, detailing the major events along the trail to that caucus. One would assume that this would allow Moss to really get to know Buttigieg both personally and politically. Unfortunately, this documentary doesn’t illuminate Buttigieg in either sense.
The framing device is a sit-down interview that Buttigieg does in front of Moss’ cameras, an interview that’s conducted by Buttigieg’s husband, Chasten. This seems like a clever idea, given the fact that much is made about Buttigieg being the first openly gay man to run for president. We also get occasional shots in their home, capturing some intimate moments, but other than being gay and having a husband, we don’t learn anything more.
We don’t really get the story of how Buttigieg met Chasten. There’s a reference to them meeting online, but it’s not explored at all. Buttigieg mentions coming out in a very conservative state, but we don’t get the details of that coming out. We don’t even meet anyone else in Buttigieg’s family. His parents or possible siblings, aunts, uncles or cousins are never introduced. We definitely don’t get anything about Chasten’s family or his social circle. I don’t think I required a rundown of his dating life, but to get absolutely zero beyond the two of them makes this thing feel more insulated and hollow. Moss’ style is to be a less intrusive documentary filmmaker, but I would have preferred a more Errol Morris style approach, meaning a bit more interrogation of Buttigieg. As it stands now, this film is just a fluff piece.
During the campaign, several issues arose. It would’ve been totally irresponsible if Moss didn’t show that these issues arose, but, again, the whole thing feels hollow as Moss brushes past these issues. One of the first issues is the question of whether America is ready for a gay president, which is a literal question Buttigieg is asked. This film takes time to give voice to people asking these questions and the film even goes out of its way to give voice to a very homophobic protester. What it doesn’t do is give voice to the diversity of voices in the LGBTQ community.
There was indication that America was ready for a gay president and particularly this one, but only because of the fact that his personality and presentation are such that he fits into the mainstream. He’s not obvious or conspicuous. He fits in because he passes for straight. The only way one would know he’s gay is if you’re told or you read it. You wouldn’t tell by looking at him. Masha Gessen’s article in The New Yorker better explains the argument, but Buttigieg is white, cisgender, religious, not stylish and he even served in the military. He has a very masculine persona. The real question is what if he were more effeminate in his behavior, not white, not religious, more ostentatious in how he presented and he didn’t serve in the military? In other words, what if he were more gay, more flamboyant?
Another issue is that of the wine cave incident. During a debate, Senator Elizabeth Warren called out Buttigieg for attending a fundraising event inside a wine cave where wealthy donors contributed to his campaign. This is ironic because Buttigieg had written an essay praising Bernie Sanders as a politician. Sanders is one who is totally against wealthy donors contributing to his campaign because Sanders believes it’s a form of corruption. It would have been interesting to interrogate Buttigieg on this issue and ask him why he now is against Sanders on this issue. Sadly, this film really doesn’t get into any of Buttigieg’s policy positions. It’s especially frustrating because when he throws his support for Joe Biden, it’s clearly not due to aligning of policy positions.
One last issue is the officer-involved shooting that happened in South Bend while Buttigieg was campaigning. This documentary follows Buttigieg as he attends a town hall where Black residents yell and scream at him. The take-away is how he eventually gives a good sound-byte about it on CNN some time later. Yet, the film completely skips over going into any of the details about the case or the resulting issues that arose around South Bend’s police department.
Finally, in terms of following a presidential campaign, this film offers very little beyond a couple of scenes were advisors are telling Buttigieg he has to be more emotive when he speaks. Buttigieg’s win in the Iowa Caucus is given no kind of analysis, meaning we never learn what his ground game was, which might have contributed to his win there. We don’t get any subsequent analysis of his losses in the New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina primaries, meaning we never learn if there were any substantive differences to the ground game in those states or what the polling indicated or anything. There just is no interrogation or any deep diving here. It’s all superficial and boring.
Rated R for violence, alcohol use and language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 36 mins.
Available on Amazon Prime.