'Running With Beto': Film Review | SXSW 2019

Charlie Gross
A rosy portrait of a charming idealist.

David Modigliani trails once and future candidate Beto O'Rourke as he stuns naysayers in a nearly successful 2018 campaign for Senate.

Is it really that surprising that Beto O'Rourke nearly ascended to one of Texas' U.S. Senate seats in 2018? Sure, no Democrat had won a stateside race here for a quarter-century. But rarely had such a sincere and upbeat candidate been pitted against someone as clearly villainous as Ted Cruz, who is disliked even by many who share his views, and who answers the question, "What would Joseph McCarthy look like if he ate chicken fried steak every day?" Documentarian David Modigliani's straightforward campaign film Running With Beto captures the excitement of that near-victory and celebrates the grassroots work done by passionate volunteers. But mostly it is a tide-me-over for progressives who are heartened by last year's victories and need to maintain that optimism: Yes, it says, voters will embrace the left when it speaks with honesty and clarity, and when its message is determined not by polling and strategy but by convictions. Beto may not sway viewers who think the rising star has a long way to go before deserving a position higher than the Senate, but it's sure to leave lefties eager for the next chapter in his career.

Modigliani, whose 2008 doc Crawford hung out in the Central Texas town George W. Bush cynically embraced to make himself look like a rancher, starts following O'Rourke long before most observers thought he had any chance of beating Cruz. A year before the November 2018 election, we visit the Austin headquarters where campaign chief David Wysong is trying to work without many of the tools establishment campaigns rely on. O'Rourke didn't want to do polls to see if others felt the same way he did — "He just thinks that politics becomes gross when you overdo that stuff," Wysong says, explaining that polling and consultants tempt politicians to stray from their actual values.

Instead, the candidate sets out to visit every one of the state's 254 counties, seeking "personal connections" with residents instead of pushing TV ads on them. He rejected political action committees, raising startling amounts of money in donations that averaged just 44 dollars. He drove himself around, scarfing unhealthy-looking food behind the wheel and spending too much time away from his wife and kids.

Sadly for viewers who didn't follow this race closely, Modigliani offers nothing to explain how Beto got from his oft-mentioned youth as an aspiring musician to the point of being a credible candidate for public office. We see a bit about O'Rourke's late father Pat, a county judge whose feelings about border issues seem to have informed his son's. But it would've taken only a couple of minutes to answer questions about Beto's background and the evolution of his political beliefs, and Running With Beto won't spare the time.

Instead, Modigliani takes welcome detours into the lives of a few women who sacrifice much of their year to helping a stranger become senator. Shannon Gay, in the tiny Central Texas town of Bulverde, is the most colorful, a raw-voiced super-enthusiast who looks like she'd happily follow the candidate into a war zone. (Even here, though, the director frustrates us — placing some items onscreen conspicuously that suggest Gay is a firearms enthusiast, then refusing to ask how she reconciles that with O'Rourke's positions on gun control. The film's graphics also misidentify Bulverde as being on the Gulf Coast near Galveston, an error Beto himself would surely have caught.)

Other volunteer sequences reflect the candidate's message through the eyes of people who've long been ignored or harmed by Cruz's politics. Encounters between these supporters and the candidate show how easy it is for O'Rourke — boyishly respectful, happy to listen — to make them feel heard. Not that it's easy for him to get to all those meetings: Fly-on-the-wall scenes find him scolding the staffers who prepare public events and deal with press — not insulting them, but making it clear that he expects as much from them as he does from himself.

Running With Beto keeps its storytelling lively by highlighting a couple of episodes that helped raise the candidate's profile — a 24-hour live-streaming marathon; an off-the-cuff bit of right-thinking eloquence about the Colin Kaepernick controversy. It also sees how some high points — like that Kaepernick speech, which went viral — are used against him by Cruz. Even at the campaign's end, though, amid Republican mudslinging and despite supporters' advice, Running With Beto portrays O'Rourke as committed to positivity, refusing to make his own attack ads. We all know he loses in the end, but the film maintains a sense of drama, and O'Rourke maintains that positive attitude: As he prepares to deliver a concession speech, he seems like the only person in the room not in need of grief counseling. However rosy the film's vision of its subject may be, O'Rourke's graciousness in moments like these can't be manufactured in the editing room — and will be an inspiration for many viewers who have found it hard to believe there is any decency left in politics.

Production company: Live Action Projects
Distributor: HBO
Director: David Modigliani
Producers: Rachel Ecklund, Rebecca Feferman, Greg Kwedar, David Modigliani, Michelle Modigliani, Nancy Schafer
Executive producers: Nancy Abraham, Lisa Heller
Directors of photography: Ellie Ann Fenton, Kelly West
Editors: Penelope Falk, David Bartner
Composer: David Garza
Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight)

92 minutes