Running with Beto review – punchy political documentary glosses over grit

Beto O’Rourke’s senatorial run is put under the spotlight in an engaging if superficial look at the unlikely rise of a Democratic hero in a red state

“Gotta run like there’s nothing to lose,” nods a sweat-drenched Beto O’Rourke. The three-term congressional representative for the Texas border city of El Paso has just returned from a run in his Washington DC neighborhood. It is around a year before the Texas senatorial election but he has already launched his campaign, in which he will visit all of the state’s counties, host town halls and, eventually, gain national attention, with cameras present for almost every minute. The HBO documentary Running with Beto details the now-presidential hopeful’s initial rise to political stardom in 2018 as a classic David v Goliath narrative.

The film’s director, David Modigliani, apparently met the former senatorial candidate during a baseball game as the two played against each other. At the time, O’Rourke had only been running for six weeks.

Through Modigliani’s lens, O’Rourke’s path to the election is a true grassroots tale, with the charming, youthful candidate in a starring role. The documentary trails him as he moves through the Lone Star state, his shirts stained with sweat. Attracting sparse crowds to begin with, it’s clear that the Democratic candidate faced an uphill battle. “Ted Cruz has massive name ID where Beto is largely unknown,” says David Wysong, O’Rourke’s campaign chief. To win, they need to charm enough people to shift the state. It seems nearly impossible – “insane” is the word Wysong uses – but in the end, it almost works. During the course of the film, the race shifts from “Solid GOP” to “Likely”, reigniting the Democratic blue flames of the state. When he eventually loses, it is by a margin of only about 150,000 people, the best statewide results for a Democrat in over 20 years. According to the Texas Tribune, O’Rourke’s run helped galvanize other bids, leading to the gain of two US House of Representative seats, two Texas senate seats, and 12 Texas house seats.

But while the film is endearing, one starts to wonder if O’Rourke himself is a little too endearing. At one point in the documentary, his opponent Ted Cruz called the media coverage around O’Rourke “Kennedy-esque” and this is precisely how Running with Beto portrays him: a handsome, charismatic Democratic savior who electrifies crowds with his words and progressive ideals, even when O’Rourke is seen being inarguably mean to his staff. But rather than exploring this rare show of imperfection, the film shows his staff pardoning his behavior minutes later. This is where the film falters; it’s superficial in moments where a deeper dive would be more beneficial, like after O’Rourke’s speech following the Santa Fe shooting, where he appears emotional or a scene of him watching clips of his father.

The best moments of the film confront the reality of the Red Wall and the effect of the race on Beto and the people around him as he’s separated from his family. The most sobering moments occur after O’Rourke gives his concession speech when he returns to his El Paso home and he and his wife make quesadillas for their children before sending them off to bed.

A still from Running with Beto

Photograph: Charlie Gross / courtesy of HBO

Volunteer Shannon Gay is the funniest voice of the film, calling her small town of Bulverde “the dark heart of Trump-ganistan” and telling hilarious anecdotes about her interactions with both candidates. The first time we meet her, she relays stories about how she once told Beto, “I’m going to be up your ass so much, I’ll be able to tell you what you had for lunch” and reportedly told one of Cruz’s campaign aides that she planned on asking Cruz (who she describes an “arrogant fuckwit”) if he was circumcised as a way to make a point about the regulation of female reproductive systems. But the film strands her as one-dimensional comic relief, despite hints of an interesting backstory. The most interesting voice is that of O’Rourke’s 11-year-old son, Ulysses. Astute and intelligent, his point of view is the freshest and one of the most honest and it’s from his perspective that the audience understands the true sacrifice of the race.

O’Rourke is currently running for president but his campaign has unexpectedly appeared to run out of steam, possibly due to overexposure. But no matter what becomes of O’Rourke’s political future, one thing is clear: his bid for Senate reintroduced the possibility of a Democratic future for Texas. As his young son Ulysses smirks, “This state is not a blue state. Or a red state. It’s a Beto state.”

  • Running with Beto premieres on HBO on 28 May with a UK date yet to be announced


Dream McClinton

The GuardianTramp

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