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Running with Beto and the Power of Political Documentaries to Make (or Break) a Rising Star

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One of the most beautifully tragic things about life is that the moments that define us, whether professionally or personally, can be both the best and worst things that happen to us.

Texas politician Beto O’Rourke became a household name in America’s blue states in no small thanks to an August 2018 viral video of him speaking passionately about NFL players’ right to kneel during the national anthem. A Vanity Fair cover story, a nostalgia-hued tell-all from his college girlfriend, think pieces like this one from Paste itself, and a ton of other press would eventually follow as mainstream liberals began to donate to his then-campaign for the U.S. senate and talk quickly began to swirl of a presidential run in 2020.

But, as Running with Beto—documentarian David Modigliani’s new film that chronicled O’Rourke’s quest last year—shows, that impromptu moment on a routine campaign stop was also just the ammo that his enemies needed. Ted Cruz, the long-time incumbent holding that senate seat, seized the opportunity to launch attack ads that played into ring-wing fear-mongering and propaganda. Cruz would eventually (barely) win re-election with 50.9% of the votes and O’Rourke would go on to become one of the—at last count—500,000 people vying to be the Democrats’ presidential candidate for 2020.

And Modigliani? His film, which premiered at South by Southwest this spring and will make its television debut May 28 on HBO, has him join the fold of documentarians who have captured political history as it unfolds and before it’s taught in history books or through Broadway musicals (Modigliani tells Paste that his production company has maintained the rights to show the film at college campuses). These include Robert Drew and 1960’s Primary, about John F. Kennedy’s battle with Hubert Humphrey for that year’s Democratic primary nomination, D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus and 1993’s The War Room, about Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, and Rachel Lears with this year’s Knock Down the House, which is about some of the influential (female) politicians who ran for office in 2018.

Simon Kilmurry, the executive director of the International Documentary Association, says it’s documentaries’ jobs to straddle the line of entertainment and education because “you are asking people to give up 90-plus minutes of their time to engage in a story.” But, he adds, “there is something much more profound that goes on here.”

“Getting access deep into how campaigns run and how candidates can genuinely work under pressure and deal with conflicts can be rather illuminating in both good and bad ways,” Kilmurry says.

That’s because, no matter how frequently these films catch rising stars like Beto does, or the 2005 Marshall Curry film Street Fight did by chronicling Cory Booker’s 2002 mayoral campaign in Newark, they can also catch the slowly unfolding train-wreck of a politician’s career (and life). Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s 2016 film Weiner started out positive enough; a chance to catch a supposedly reformed Anthony Weiner vie for the 2013 New York City mayoral election after a 2011 sexting scandal all but destroyed his career. Instead, film became the political documentary equivalent to watching Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s true-crime miniseries The Staircase. Surprise twists and uncovered guilt appear before our very eyes when the subject gets caught in another sexting scandal that also jeopardizes the career of his wife, Hillary Clinton adviser Huma Abedin. (And may also have contributed to Clinton losing the 2016 presidential election).

But what makes Beto, and so many other films in this genre of interest to filmmakers all is that it starts with the belief and confidence that spending a year or so of your life following a unknown or somewhat-known candidate will end up being of interest to a larger audience. Modigliani likes to tell the story of meeting O’Rourke at a sandlot baseball game, and he recounts by phone earlier this week while en route to the film’s premiere, “when Beto started speaking to the crowd at our baseball game and brushed his sweaty locks aside in his uniform, it was very clear how magnetic and empathetic and fully present he was.”

“But, it was really the type of campaign [for U.S. Senate] that he was going to run: that he was going to go to every county in Texas, that he was only going to raise money from human beings and not corporations, that he wasn’t hiring consultants,” that made him an interesting subject, says Modigliani. “He was a risk taker; he was in the face of 25 years of progressives in Texas doing the same thing and not getting results. He was willing to try something new. And he was going to do that in a way that felt like an odyssey because he was going to be traveling all over the state.”

IDA’s Kilmurry says there’s also a message in the increase of these films airing on television or streaming services. In his previous job as executive producer on the venerable PBS documentary series POV, he would air political documentaries like Chisholm ‘72, director Shola Lynch’s 2004 film that looked back on Shirley Chisholm’s glass ceiling-cracking campaign as the first African-American woman to run for U.S. president, and A Perfect Candidate, R.J. Cutler’s film about the 1994 U.S. Senate race in Virginia. By monitoring the ratings, Kilmurry says he’d see that the televised airings of these films “had the opportunity to reach across a more diverse political landscape” as opposed to simply airing in a theater to an audience who made a planned, conscious effort to see it.

Similarly, Knock Down the House director Lears recently told the Charleston Gazette-Mail that “every single one of [the races followed in her film] changed the conversation, and collectively they contributed to changing the national conversation.”

“If you look at the types of stuff that’s getting talked about in Democratic primary for president in 2020, candidates are having to answer whether they take corporate funds,” she adds. “A lot of the policies these folks ran on were front and center.”

Kilmurry says to expect to see more political documentaries, especially given the popularity of streaming and the impending presidential election.

“Any time you have strong characters, conflict, high stakes and issues of great public concern; those are the things that are always going to draw in documentarians,” he says.

Just one example? He points to And She Could Be Next, a film currently in production that follows women of color running for office at all levels of government.

Sounds like history in the making.

Running with Beto premieres May 28 on HBO. Knock Down the House is airing now on Netflix.

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