It’s been 18 years since I escaped the state of Texas, and nothing illustrates how much things have changed in that hyper-conservative stronghold than the rise and near-win of Beto O’Rourke in his bid for Senate.
On its surface, David Modigliani’s “Running With Beto” is an inside account of that campaign — reminiscent of Albert Maysles’ “Primary” or Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s more recent “The War Room” — tracing the Democratic congressman from early speaking engagements where barely two dozen people showed up to his status as a nationally recognized hero and poster boy for the “blue wave” that swept the country during the 2018 midterm elections. But it’s also the portrait of a state many of us thought we had pinned down, and how its identity is shifting in a positive direction.
Modigliani sensed he was capturing history in the making when he asked O’Rourke whether he could document his run for Senate, beginning to film at a time when the prospect of victory must have seemed like crazy talk — and when each incremental step packed a dramatic thrill. In hindsight, however, it’s a different story (the doc will hit HBO on May 28): As the woman beside me remarked at the film’s SXSW premiere, “It’s like the Titanic. You already know how it’s gonna end.”
And yet, Modigliani’s film doesn’t reflect a defeat: Though liberals seldom stand a chance in Texas elections, this particular contest was a battle, not a massacre, and the narrow margin between underdog O’Rourke and incumbent Ted Cruz suggests just how dynamic the campaign might be to watch. By the final weeks of O’Rourke’s campaign, the entire country was paying attention, so that foregone conclusion — followed by O’Rourke now-infamous concession speech, with that F-bomb he dropped like a final exclamation point at the end of his race — doesn’t seem nearly as interesting as the outset, when the name Beto meant nada.
In a sense, agreeing to a documentary fits with the image of a seemingly everyday guy who put the “candid” in “candidate”: Here was a politician whose door-to-door strategy and overall sense of approachability were key to his charisma, and who so believed in transparency that he gave an outsider no-strings access to his private life (the crew logged nearly 700 hours of footage over 12 months). Where so many politicians fed their campaigns with PAC-backed funds, O’Rourke operated “pass the hat” style, collecting donations from individuals — nearly 800,000, who donated $44 on average.
Like Donald Trump, he speaks directly to the people, bypassing prewritten speeches in favor of extemporaneous enthusiasm (into which expletives so often sneak). But in a way that couldn’t be more different from the president, he leads with a message of optimism and positivity, pushing back against discourse that preaches fear and division. Modigliani spends time in the rooms where campaign chiefs Cynthia Cano and Jody Casey debate whether it’s possible to unseat an incumbent without taking out attack ads, and lest we rush to conclude that O’Rourke was above reproach, he includes the moment where he repeated Trump’s “Lyin’ Ted” insult during a debate with Cruz.
As regional supporter Amanda Salas — a former Republican whose parents took it better when she came out as lesbian than when she switched to the Democratic Party — points out, modern elections are won by data, so she focuses her efforts on registering voters (who turned out in record numbers for the 2018 election). While those strategies matter to the O’Rourke campaign, Beto first catches the state’s attention by doing something so few Texas politicians consider important: He visited all 254 counties in the state, introducing himself and listening as voters voiced their concerns.
Salas is one of three side characters Modigliani chose to feature, using these ordinary folks to represent the changing values of a state where any public figure must decide how to navigate religious dogma, xenophobia, and good old-fashioned ignorance. Using drone photography in an original way, the director superimposes 3D-rendered news headlines, infographics, and TV footage over fly-over shots of Texas neighborhoods — abstract representations of the homes whose residents will determine the close-call election. Parsing an astonishing volume of footage, editors Penelope Falk and David Bartner concoct a smart way of switching between online videos and the crew’s own handheld cameras, illustrating how the grassroots phenom played out largely on social media.
Zeroing in on individuals with connections he expected to see emerge as key issues in O’Rourke’s campaign, Modigliani reached out to mass shooting survivor Marcel McClinton early on and had cameras ready when the young activist (who tried in vain to sit down with Cruz) had the opportunity to meet Beto. In Bulverde, Texas, he finds foul-mouthed feminist Shannon Gay, who could give Trump a run for his money in the “locker-room talk” department. Her advice to Beto: “You better bring brains, backbone, and balls to the table or go home.”
To the extent that O’Rourke seems like a normal guy, “Running With Beto” naturally focuses much of its attention on his family, showing the strain the campaign puts on his wife Amy and three young kids. Many a comparison has been made likening O’Rourke to the Kennedy clan, and while there’s a certain similarity in his Irish charm, what we see here is an idealistic Jimmy Stewart type — a “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” for the modern age. For liberals seeking the happy-ending version of the 2018 midterms, “Knock Down the House” (featuring Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and three other female candidates) is probably more your speed. But if it’s an optimistic beginning you’re after, “Running With Beto” makes for a fine start. Speaking as a former Texan, I’m so f—ing proud of how far the state has come.