Jesse’s Moss’s new documentary, Mayor Pete, is revealing in way that feels almost inadvertent. On the surface, this behind-the-scenes chronicle of Pete Buttigieg’s 2019-20 presidential bid is as softball in tone as a pop star documentary—a mere rock doc in nattily bland politician’s clothing.
The film is largely comprised of Pete’s own words and those of the people immediately surrounding him on the campaign trail: his team, led by communications director Lis Smith, and his husband Chasten. Buttigieg seems to be steering the ship, and the ship sometimes circles back in seeming affirmation (plaintive music underscores the Buttigiegs’ reflections of Pete being yelled at by Black people during a town hall in South Bend, Indiana, following the police shooting of Black resident Eric Logan). Mayor Pete contains nary a stray shot of unsanctioned drama—if you aren’t watching closely, you may be lulled into the notion that the doc only exists as an extension of Buttigieg’s campaign. It frequently seems to underscore a message that has already been shoved down America’s collective throat: This public figure who has devoted considerable time to telling the public that he is a good, upstanding person is, in fact, a good, upstanding person. It’s all above the belt, nice, and polite—just a depiction of a steady, softspoken Midwestern public servant attempting to broaden his services.
But viewers should be careful to not spend too much time gazing at the portrait; Mayor Pete is, in actuality, all about the frame. The conversations that happen amongst Buttigieg’s team, spearheaded by Smith, almost entirely concern the commodification of Buttigieg, whose persona consists of uncanny patchwork of vaguely human qualities, right down to his smile that seems to be carved out of foam. Buttigieg, whose centrism is a matter of debate but who nonetheless has attempted to hone as close to the anodyne middle as possible for the sake of public appeal, describes himself at one point as kind of “out there,” which is probably the most out-there thing I’ve ever seen him do. If you played a drinking game in which a shot was taken every time someone discussed Buttigieg’s “authenticity” or his uniqueness, you’d be shitfaced around the 30-minute mark. An example from Smith: “He sounds completely different from everyone else out there…I really really do think it’s as much about his style and about as much as who he is as a person as it is about policy and all that stuff.”
Refocusing your eyes to see the sheen of PR — not as an aesthetic feature of this documentary, but as the text itself — will do wonders for your viewing experience. Moss doesn’t seem to probe Buttigieg too much, and yet the overall effect is to give him enough rope to…not necessarily hang himself, but get a bit tangled up in.
The action kicks off one year before the 2020 Iowa caucuses, which yielded a victory for Buttigieg and marked the peak of his campaign. And much time is devoted to the question of how to sell this mayor of South Bend to the nation. “How much more should we do to root this in biography?” wonders Buttigieg, famously a veteran, McKinsey consultant, Rhodes scholar, and speaker of several languages—in other words, a biographical craftsman of novelist proportions. “Look at this young midwestern veteran who’s kind of out there,” he continues. “And then we just gotta make sure this doesn’t read as very white.” Cut to Buttigieg meeting with Rev. Al Sharpton in New York. Jeff Gilbert’s editing in combination with Moss’s fixation on process blesses Mayor Pete with a wry, Wiseman-esque wit.
It’s not that Buttigieg’s machinations are grotesque, exactly—or that they’re any more grotesque than any other figure whose success depends on public approval. He is playing the game, which dictates that he comport his existing personality into a sellable package. You might even start to feel for him as you watch him put sincere effort into emphasizing the supposed features that will be most attractive to the public. He’s doing his absolute best…to seize as much power as possible so that all of his efforts end up mattering, which is what politicians do. This is naturally under the guise of public service, but all the articulation regarding the packaging and positioning of Buttigieg blurs the line between serving the public and serving oneself. “I’ve never felt a bigger divide between what was called for as a candidate and what was called for as a mayor,” he says in an interview after the aforementioned officer-involved shooting town hall. “As a candidate, your job is to look good. And don’t put yourself in an awkward position. Definitely don’t put yourself in a position where you symbolize things that are not going well. Definitely don’t put yourself in a position where there’s Black residents yelling at you.”
Ironically, these clinical, exacting tendencies, which the documentary serves to chronicle, are what Smith is trying to deemphasize in his public presentation. Smith sounds like a coherent Rose McGowan and has the type of ball-busting presence that tends to “steal the show” in a relatively dry, procedural political documentary such as this. She’s responsible for the movie’s R rating and whatever edge it has—her job is to critique Buttigieg relentlessly, and she does so almost always by working in an F-bomb: “He’s comin’ across like the fuckin’ Tin Man up there!”; “You need to fucking feel this in you!”; “You’re not like a fucking anthropologist here!”; “[It’s] like you’re reading a fucking shopping list!”
But Buttigieg struggles with the assignment of showing the world that he’s a human through credible emotional expression. This simply doesn’t jibe with his stated ethos of: “The stronger the emotion is, the more private it is.” (When Chasten reveals that, “He’s grown a lot being able to verbalize,” it plays like a quasi-interview portion of a Christopher Guest mockumentary.) “One of the things they say I’ve got going for me is authenticity, right? So the last thing I want to do is do or say something that’s not me in order to satisfy some desire for me to be more emotional,” says Buttigieg at another point, then explaining that the edict to “let loose and be myself” does not make any sense because he’s not inclined to do so, thus were he to, it would not qualify as being himself. It’s rather telling that someone so preoccupied with his own authenticity is far more comfortable showing how the sausage gets made by openly crafting his very persona throughout the film than he is sharing how the sausage makes him feel. There’s also a glaring discordance between Buttigieg’s vaunted authenticity and the synthesis of his campaign persona. It begs the question: Is being transparent about calculation enough to project authenticity?
The depiction of the Pete and Chasten relationship is among the least specific portraits of a marriage I’ve ever seen in any movie, nonfiction or otherwise. If they never said they were husbands, and I just observed their candid interactions contained in Mayor Pete, I would think they were very good friends (while wondering if they were secretly gay for each other). Commodifying human experience on this level and with such care, it turns out, leaves very little room for the humanity. They sit close to each other while watching TV briefly? They share a date night at Dairy Queen. I don’t question their bond—Pete presents both a softness and a sarcasm around Chasten that he doesn’t show around others, at least not in this documentary—I just have a million questions about it after being fed these scraps.
At least the enormity of their task as aspiring first couple, given all the baggage that comes with being gay in this attempt, is well conveyed. Resistance comes from without and within. The former are the homophobic protesters that shadowed Buttigieg on the campaign trail, some of whom are simply too weird to be offensive (like the guy holding a sign that reads “Remember Sodom and Gomorrah” who stands near another guy dressed as Jesus and yet another guy whipping him). At one point, Chasten is reprimanded for discussing his and Pete’s (then-unrealized) aspirations of fatherhood in public—a colleague explains that Smith found this conversation too intimate. I simply cannot imagine having to take seriously notes on my presentation as a gay man (let alone from someone who isn’t). It’s a true compassion-extending moment, even if Chasten generally seems way too content to be a figurehead. “What I am good at talking about is myself and right now I think that’s enough for a lot of people,” is how the first husband who wasn’t (...yet!) describes his role, evincing an increasingly prevalent component of the American dream: showing up and getting paid to be yourself. It’s great work if you can get it.
Through his campaign, Buttigieg did move people and, in turn, their descriptions of how are themselves moving: A young woman with autism tells Pete that his example is helping her be more comfortable in being herself, for instance. Via the words of people that Buttigieg proposed to serve, Mayor Pete valorizes; via Buttigieg’s own words, it cuts him down to size. Ultimately, this terrifically crafted documentary is more humbling than humanizing. But at least through all the strategy and machinations, we come closer than ever to the actual person whose persona is being built from the ground up. He’s in there somewhere, and if you squint hard enough, you can see signs of life in Mayor Pete.