×

SXSW Film Review: ‘Running With Beto’

David Modigliani's HBO doc shows why Beto O'Rourke's close-call run for Senate marks a turning point for typically conservative Texas politics.

Director:
David Modigliani
With:
Beto O'Rourke, Amy O'Rourke
Release Date:
May 28, 2019

1 hour 32 minutes

Official Site: https://www.hbo.com/documentaries/running-with-beto

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.

MORE FROM SXSW:

SXSW Film Review: 'Running With Beto'

Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight), March 9, 2019. Running time: 92 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) An HBO release of a HBO Documentary Films presentation of a Live Action Project production, in association with Crooked Media. Producers: David Modigliani, Rachel Ecklund, Rebecca Feferman, Greg Kwedar, Michelle Modigliani, Nancy Schafer. Executive producers: Alex Halbert, Heather Halbert, Jon Halbert, Linda Halbert, Andrew Gill, Lindsey Gill, Akbar Mohammed, Rishma Mohammed, Lias Jeff Steen. Co-executive producers: LeeAn Behrens, David Montague, Meryl Metni, Barry Munger, Sarah O'Neil, Ashley Pettus, Annie Roney, Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, Tommy Vietor

Crew: Director: David Modigliani. Camera (color): Ellie Ann Fenton, Kelly West. Editors: Penelope Falk, David Bartner.

With: Beto O'Rourke, Amy O'Rourke, Cynthia Cano, Jody Casey, Chris Evans, David Wysong, Shannon Gay, Marcel McClinton, Amanda Salas.

More Film

  • Alexander Skarsgard in the front rowGiorgio

    Film News Roundup: Alexander Skarsgard Joins 'Passing' With Tessa Thompson

    In today’s film news roundup, Taryn Manning, Shane West and Alexander Skarsgård have new roles, and Warner Bros. unveils a modernized logo. CASTINGS Alexander Skarsgård has signed on to join Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga and André Holland in “Passing.” The film marks Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut and is based on a screenplay that Hall adapted [...]

  • Spike Lee

    Spike Lee to Direct Hip-Hop Love Story 'Prince of Cats'

    Spike Lee will direct a big-screen version of the hip-hop love story “Prince of Cats,” based on Ron Wimberly’s graphic novel. Legendary has been developing the project with Janet and Kate Zucker of Zucker Productions. Lee, who won the Academy Award for adapted screenplay for “BlacKkKlansman,” will also re-write the “Prince of Cats” script with [...]

  • DOLEMITE IS MY NAME!, 2019, DOL_Unit_06284.RAF

    'Dolemite Is My Name' Writer Larry Karaszewski Recalls 10-Year Journey to Make Rudy Ray Moore Biopic

    “Harriet” writer-director Kasi Lemmons was in a reflective mood at Tuesday night’s “Behind the Scene” event at the Formosa Cafe in West Hollywood, sponsored by the Writers Guild of America West. The biopic, starring Cynthia Erivo as slave-turned-abolitionist Harriet Tubman, has been receiving buzz since its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s Lemmons’ [...]

  • Writers vs Agents Packaging War WGA

    Abrams Artists Agency Signs Writers Guild Deal

    In a major triumph for the Writers Guild of America, the Abrams Artists Agency has signed the WGA’s Code of Conduct, allowing the agency to return to representing WGA members again. Chairman Adam Bold made the announcement Wednesday, saying that the agency wants to put its clients back to work. He also noted WGA West [...]

  • Taika Waititi and Roman Griffin Davis

    Holocaust Experts Debate 'Jojo Rabbit' at Museum of Tolerance Screening

    With its comedic, cartoonish portrayal of Nazis, Taika Waititi’s satirical Hitler youth tale “Jojo Rabbit” has polarized critics and audiences alike. And that division continued to be stirred at Tuesday night’s screening of the film at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, where Liebe Geft, director of the museum, moderated a heated panel discussion [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content