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Review: O’Rourke hits the campaign trail in documentary ‘Running With Beto’

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Beto O’Rourke in the documentary “Running With Beto.”
(Charlie Gross / HBO)

If “Running with Beto,” which follows Beto O’Rourke’s meteoric rise from lesser-known Texas Democratic congressman to U.S. Senate hopeful via his 2018 bid to unseat Republican incumbent Ted Cruz is expected to serve as a promotional tool for O’Rourke’s 2020 presidential campaign, this entertaining, if straightforward documentary may only partly achieve that lofty goal.

Although it certainly presents O’Rourke as a spirited, galvanizing, staunchly progressive force, the movie, produced and directed by David Modigliani, doesn’t necessarily show or tell us much of import that most political junkies — this movie’s seemingly chief audience — do not already know.

If anything, in its well-paced, largely fly-on-the-wall style, “Running” simply reconfirms what supporters have seemed to like best about the El Paso native: He’s a charismatic, hyper-articulate, casually handsome everyman with bold ideas and a Kennedy-esque idealism; a strong and viable package for those voters who are so inclined.

That said, this almost constantly on-the-move film vividly hits the highlights of O’Rourke’s hard-fought, hands-on battle against the deep-rooted Cruz, including campaign stops in every one of Texas’ 254 counties, several feisty candidate debates, rousing rallies, innovative uses of social media, a shunning of PAC money, a few policy dust-ups, big-time TV interviews and a surprisingly close outcome. (Cruz won re-election by less than 3 percentage points.)

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It’s an absorbing, yearlong look at how two polar-opposite politicians vie for supremacy in the age of Donald Trump, with one seeming to rely on truth-twisting and fear-mongering while the other takes a more visionary, egalitarian approach. Two guesses which is which.

Although neither Cruz nor Trump is shown in a particularly positive light, Modigliani doesn’t overly demonize them for O’Rourke’s benefit. Their words essentially speak for themselves.

The film also does a nice job involving us with O’Rourke’s steadfast wife Amy and their adorable young children — Ulysses, Molly and Henry — whose patience with his absences during this hectic time is tested and, it seems, effectively managed. Whether from near or far, O’Rourke seems to keep them as connected to his campaign as possible, despite the kids’ increasing antsiness.

Modigliani also intimately captures the candidate’s election night loss and the O’Rourke family’s resigned reaction with bittersweet, tomorrow-is-another-day grace.

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But as eager, warm, sincere and inspiring as O’Rourke may appear, he isn’t given the saintly treatment either. The film features a handful of tense moments in which the congressman takes a staffer or two to task over their lack of preparation or vigilance on his behalf. Given O’Rourke’s usual warmth and general equanimity, these instances come off a bit unexpected yet, in a way, also refreshingly real. He also tosses off the sporadic f-bomb with unselfconscious exuberance.

In addition, the movie makes time to engagingly focus on a diverse trio of O’Rourke’s devoted grassroots volunteers: 17-year-old gun-safety activist Marcel McClinton; ex-Republican Amanda Salas, a lesbian bucking the odds in her apathetic hometown of McAllen (chats with her pro-Trump stepfather succinctly mirror the left-right divide); and tattooed, forthright, former military wife Shannon Gay.

What “Running” doesn’t do is provide much history or personal dimension about O’Rourke beyond several passing comments (there were a few 1990s legal infractions, a love of punk rock music) and scrapbook photos. Modigliani also eschews any outside punditry that could have helped to more objectively frame the candidate. It’s decidedly not that kind of documentary — often more run-and-gun than deep dive. So be it.

It can be tough to build a lot of cinematic tension when a story’s outcome is already known. “Running” is no exception, despite the filmmaker’s efforts to keep things whipping forward around election night. Still, as Gay notes of O’Rourke’s future after his senatorial defeat, “This is the bed of coals here, and we’re just getting cooking.” So far, her prediction seems about right.

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‘Running with Beto’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes

Playing: Starts Friday, Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; Available May 28 on HBO

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