On some level, everyone is always performing for everyone else, but those in the public eye are more prone to calculating and retooling themselves whenever they step in front of a camera. Politicians, then, aren’t so different from the Real Housewives whom people love to loathe. And the hagiographic documentaries that tend to emerge after their campaigns — whether they win or lose — are just further steps in crafting their images. Mayor Pete is the latest in a slew of films, such as Running with Beto or Knock Down the House, that feel more like extended campaign ads than real movies. Director Jesse Moss tries hard to offer a portrait of Pete Buttigieg that’s more intimate and earnest than the persona he projected during his abortive 2020 presidential campaign, but it’s impossible to show something that doesn’t exist. “Don’t bullshit us, Pete,” Moss jokingly says early on. But how can you ask that of someone whose entire public image is bullshit?
A vérité documentary requires either a compelling figure or situation, and Mayor Pete has neither. Everything about Pete Buttigieg is scripted to be as inoffensive as possible. The arc of his campaign and its result — not winning the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, then becoming Secretary of Transportation for the Biden administration — is already public knowledge. The film consists mostly of scenes of people telling Buttigieg or the camera how unique he is. Neither he nor Moss seem to understand that when he decries the “gregarious charisma” of other politicians, he’s crucifying himself. Some try to claim that his blandness is reassuring, applauding him for being “calming” or being “the exact opposite of Donald Trump” and “not out there as a circus act.” But the truth is that Buttigieg is simply uninteresting because he’s empty and longing to please as many people as possible.
Buttigieg’s husband Chasten serves as a cheerleader throughout, reminding us that Pete’s life has shaped the way he performs. There is no doubt an interesting film to be made about the compromises that minorities have to make to succeed, but Moss never pushes his subject to think about or discuss this. Each of Chasten’s vague asides about how Pete performs is followed by a clearly artificial speech. Even the romantic beats between the couple are egregiously staged. They mainly recite the same approved-by-committee statements about what it’s like to be an openly gay man running for office.
Moss doesn’t shy away from including footage of people critiquing Buttigieg’s policies and lack of charisma, but acknowledging criticism is different from responding to it. In fact, most of the conversations Buttigieg has with Black organizers and critics are rather exploitative, used to show how sensitive he supposedly is to the plights of other minorities, even though he never offers any meaningful avenue for change. The film also doesn’t care to dive into the mountain of frustrations that critics, including those in the queer community, have with him. Instead it pairs whatever measured criticism it deigns to include with people slinging comically hateful homophobia, as though deflecting from anything too risqué being discussed.
In Conflict is Not Abuse, Sarah Schulman examines how the term “gay” has transitioned “from a severely oppressed, once broad category of people, to the more recent phenomenon of select sexual minority sectors getting access to the state’s punishment apparatus, often based in whiteness citizenship, normalizing family roles, and HIV negativity.” By way of explaining this “trajectory from oppressed to oppressor,” she notes that “formerly subordinated or traumatized groups identify with the supremacy of the state.” Pete Buttigieg, and by extension Mayor Pete, demonstrate exactly this. This is a man who has nothing to say and everything to sell in order to succeed, no matter what the cost to those he claims to represent.
Mayor Pete will be available to stream on Amazon Prime starting November 12.