In April 2017, David Modigliani’s sandlot baseball team, the Texas Playboys, were playing a game in Austin against Los Diablitos de El Paso. The documentary filmmaker was playing first base and got to talking to a lanky center fielder from the other team, Beto O’Rourke, who’d just declared he was running for the Senate against Ted Cruz.
In the wake of the bitter 2016 presidential election, Modigliani was “feeling so acutely how much we dehumanize each other through politics and how much that just causes people to throw their hands up and disconnect from the political process entirely.” The director, who’d made a film called “Crawford,” about the small Texas town transformed by George W. Bush’s presidency, was looking “ for a story that might rehumanize politics in some way or make it feel approachable.”
Modigliani and producer Rebecca Feferman ultimately spent a year following O’Rourke as he live-streamed his way across Texas and rose from obscure congressman to media darling. The result is “Running With Beto,” which premieres Tuesday on HBO and also has a limited theatrical run. The documentary offers a fly-on-the-wall look at O’Rourke’s insurgent campaign.
The filmmakers had access to O’Rourke and his photogenic family at moments both tense (we see the candidate scolding staffers for not responding to emails) and vulnerable (we’re with his family in the kitchen as they eat sandwiches late on election night after a narrow loss to Cruz).
“It was so important to us that this not be a hagiography, that this not be a puff piece,” Modigliani said, “and to show the full gamut of the human experience of running for office.”
The filmmakers broaden the story by following three of O’Rourke’s most committed volunteers as they attempt to turn Texas blue: Marcel McClinton, a survivor of a shooting rampage outside his Houston church in 2016; Amanda Salas, a once-closeted former Republican from the border city of McAllen; and the vividly profane Shannon Gay, from Bulverde, who may be the film’s breakout star.
“Beto would be the first to say that he was a vessel for the energy in Texas in this moment, that there was this reawakening in response to a crisis in our democracy,” Modigliani said. “I knew we wanted to include three characters from around the state that might be representative of the different types of people — culturally, geographically — that were drawn into this movement.”
The end result is an admiring portrait of a tech-savvy, skilled retail politician and — almost as crucial, given his loss — the people O’Rourke inspired to get involved in a state known for its abysmal voter turnout. “This is a simmering fire, this is the bed of coals,” says Gay, disappointed but undeterred on election night. “We’re just getting cooking.”
“Running With Beto” provides an interesting contrast to “Knock Down the House,” the recent Netflix documentary chronicling Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s long-shot victory against incumbent Joe Crowley (as well as three other women who lost their primary races). This is not a tale of a miracle victory.
“Plan A was always that he was going to lose this race,” says Modigliani, who took inspiration from documentaries including “Street Fight,” about Cory Booker’s unsuccessful first race for Newark mayor, and “Mitt,” which followed Mitt Romney’s failed 2012 presidential run. “If you have real access to an interesting campaign, it does not have to be successful for it to be fascinating.”
Feferman and Modigliani witnessed firsthand the media frenzy that erupted around O’Rourke, particularly after a video of him defending NFL players’ right to kneel in protest went viral.
“Running With Beto” arrives as O’Rouke is trying, with uncertain results, to replicate the magic of his Senate race in a crowded presidential primary. He came out big, effectively announcing his run in March with a flashy Vanity Fair cover story, but he’s since had to defend himself against charges of entitlement and been criticized for lack of policy specifics and a habit of standing on people’s counters. A candidate who was built up by the media now seems to be facing backlash.
“I’m a cynic,” said Feferman (the filmmakers are not following O’Rourke’s presidential run). “To me this is just the cycle. There’s a very long campaign ahead of us.”
Gay, 61, is a tough-talking Texan who was inspired to get involved in politics because of veterans’ issues. Her ex-husband was a special forces sniper who struggled with the adjustment to civilian life. She was impressed by O’Rourke’s willingness to own up to mistakes. “He's one of those kids that if he got a good swift kick in the [groin] for doing something stupid, on his way back up he would be saying, ‘I'll try better next time,’ ” she said in an interview with McClinton and Salas, her fellow campaign volunteers.
In the film, she makes a giant “Beto” banner and drapes it over her roof and has plenty of dismissive, mostly unprintable things to say about Cruz. (“Tough as Texas, my ass,” she sneers at one point.)
Salas, 33, was struck by O’Rourke’s knowledge of border issues and by his ability to speak to her mother, whom she describes as a “pro-life conservative,” about women’s healthcare in a way that wasn’t alienating. “She didn't just drink the Beto juice, she's a believer. She’s a guzzler,” Salas said of her mother. (The film captures her less successful efforts to persuade her stepfather, a Fox News viewer who simply won’t vote for “socialist” O’Rourke.)
McClinton, 17, was won over when O’Rourke traveled through a hurricane to meet with him and other survivors of gun violence. He had assumed it would be a photo op — “they just want crying kids in the background with Beto, hugging him” — but O’Rourke took notes, asked about their experiences with trauma and knew all their names. “We all know that his heart is pure and genuine, and that he really is not doing this to further his own career. It's really to spread a message of unity, love, and just betterment,” said McClinton, who is now running for City Council in Houston. ”I’m pretty sure I’ve found my niche.”
Despite their effusive praise for O’Rourke, none of the three volunteers are ready to pledge their support to his presidential campaign — at least not yet.
“I’m feeling a little selfish because we busted our ass for him in Texas, and now you expect us to share you with the rest of the country? [Expletive] you, dude!” said Gay, who remains inspired by the campaign. “Beto didn't lose.… This is a young man that knocked this entire planet another degree off its axis. OK? Off its axis. He's changed the political scene permanently. So win, lose or draw, we still win. OK?”
‘Running With Beto’
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: Not rated