In contrast to the overly reported trend of people moving from the elite coasts to the supposed conservative bastion of Texas, I’ve found myself and many others vehemently severing our ties with the Lone Star State whilst out of its borders. Both are ill-conceived, because anyone who has been to the mega state knows the outside perception is largely false. Arguably where it counts most, interactions at the human-to-human level are more cherished across all walks of life there. As a boy visiting family in El Paso, it was striking to realize how weirdly in harmony everyone was, whether it be the overcoming of the language barrier or solidarity amongst workers of all backgrounds in a thriving multiracial community. It’s peculiar to us big city folk how in less densely populated areas the distance between people was relatively closed. Though the few times I championed El Paso, I always took endless crap for it… up until Mr. O’Rourke came onto the scene.
The RUNNING WITH BETO documentary covers the senatorial campaign of one congressman Robert “Beto” O’Rourke as he utilizes his public speaking skills to hopefully win the hearts of Texans in every single county the state has. We start with O’Rourke’s morning run outside his congressional residence in D.C. as he recalls his reaction to the 2016 election, saying that he needed to take a stand against those who use fear to define the United States. It’s a throughline he maintains the whole way, and though effective, rarely does it push him to detail anything of true substance. O’Rourke relies on his stage presence, honed in his former punk rocker days, though the film barely covers that history, using it to preach a much-needed, albeit generic, message of unity with the occasional millennial-trending viral video or f-bomb thrown in. It’s easier to see in the film than, say, the news media, which is why director David Modigliani allows others to steal the spotlight.
O’Rourke’s team of staffers and volunteers are a hoot, many of them recently-turned former conservatives. There’s volunteer Amanda Salas, who while canvassing in her district, explains that it was more difficult to come out to her conservative family as a Democrat than as a lesbian. Gentle giant and O’Rourke’s longtime chief of staff David Wysong says so much with the slightest of facial expressions reacting to either the debates or final numbers coming in. The stress exuded by deputy campaign manager Cynthia Cano is so palpable that it’s hard to not to get caught up in it. But the real standout star has to be Shannon Gay, whom we follow solely at her residence in Bulverde, TX and whose previous rugged, right-wing zealotry translates into unrelenting support for O’Rourke in the form of elaborate DIY signage and colorfully-worded shpiels. Of course, most all of their ire is aimed at the status quo epitomized by the widely hated incumbent Republican senator, Ted Cruz.
There are only a few brief glimpses of the opposition here and there throughout the documentary, which is a real shame, because what contention that is shown is fairly captivating. Salas argues passionately with her conservative stepfather who is unsurprisingly steadfast on his beliefs. Once or twice we get a cutaway to a gun nut sideshow, but seldom does O’Rourke or his team engage with them. The most feisty our subject gets is unfortunately in a context most all of us has seen him in before, the Texas senatorial debates. It’s obviously not the hardest thing in the world to outwit or upstage Ted Cruz, but O’Rourke is particularly brutal as he eagerly throws out the fact that he’s met with constituents in every county in Texas while Cruz has been shamelessly and endlessly kowtowing for 45. As short as that segment was, it’s good to see at least someone take the fight to those who deserve to be fought. But portraying O’Rourke as the least bit combative would definitely fly in the face of his squeaky-clean, focus group-approved persona.
RUNNING WITH BETO is by all means a feel-good puff piece perfectly suited for the neoliberal HBO streaming crowd who want to take a break from their regular true crime fare. It provides a sometimes intimate, but mostly overly saccharine portrayal of a candidate, fake Hispanic moniker aside, representing how sensible and potentially forward-thinking those we don’t expect can be. It’s a good pitch for someone running for senate, but for the presidency? Not really. At the question and answer segment after the film screened at SXSW, O’Rourke was pestered by the shot-for-president question which he deflected… up until the very next day where he announced his campaign online, knowing full well that doing so at a lefty hotspot like South By would sour him to some. It’s ultimately good what he was able to achieve despite losing. He proved that Texas is purple, but again, I could have told you the same, if not something similar, years ago as a boy visiting primos in El Paso.