‘Mayor Pete’ Film Review: Decent Documentary, or Cleverly Crafted Campaign Ad?

A few sharp edges make their way into a portrait that’s often lacking in deeper insight about Pete Buttigieg’s life and career

Mayor Pete
Prime Video

(This review of “Mayor Pete” was published on Oct. 14 after it screened at the Chicago International Film Festival.)

Who is Pete Buttigieg? “Mayor Pete” director Jesse Moss tries to answer that question by building what is, in essence, an extended campaign ad. But in between the determinedly folksy approach, a few sharp insights do shine through.

Buttigieg lightheartedly dubs himself a “Maltese-American-left-handed-Episcopalian-gay-war veteran-mayor Millennial.” Behind that lengthy description, we can see an unexpectedly difficult dichotomy: He’s aiming to be all things to all people, while simultaneously trying to honor his own private, introverted instincts. Can Buttigieg change the world without changing himself?

It’s this tension that provides the film with its modest weight, as Moss (“Boys State”) follows the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor during the year leading up to the 2020 presidential campaign. 

An earnest Democratic underdog in the Trump era, Buttigieg aimed to be the youngest president of the United States. What’s more, he wound up — spoiler alert? — becoming the country’s first openly gay Cabinet member, after Joe Biden nominated him for Secretary of Transportation.

There’s clearly a great story here, which makes it all the more frustrating that we learn surprisingly little about Buttigieg himself. His history, his policy work, his family outside of husband Chasten? Like the man himself, the nuanced details of his biography often remain just out of reach. A documentary shouldn’t require a supplementary visit to a subject’s Wikipedia page to fill in copious gaps. 

Perhaps inevitably, given Buttigieg’s natural reserve, the most interesting characters actually turn out to be his ambitious support team, in particular Chasten and campaign communications director Lis Smith. Chasten is eloquent and open, ready to shape his ambiguous but groundbreaking position as a political spouse into a formative and impactful role for both him and his husband. Smith is thrillingly blunt and intensely focused, an ideal counterpart to her stoically unemotive boss.

Each pushes him, with admittedly limited success, to open up more about his thoughts and experiences. It’s these scenes that feel most human, when we can see how hard each member of this cohort is working to meld different perspectives and approaches into a shared, fully-felt goal.

Overall, though, from its jaunty score to its campaign-stop structure, the film replicates the outward nature of Buttigieg himself: thoughtful, sincere, and restrained. The outcome feels a bit like a promising also-ran in a crowded field. In contrast to viscerally electric or culturally essential documentaries like “The War Room” and “All In: The Fight for Democracy,” “Mayor Pete” is a doggedly traditional behind-the-scenes glimpse at a solemnly earnest political candidate.

It’s an enjoyable ride with intermittently compelling moments, particularly when Buttigieg struggles to find the balance between innate personality, intellectual morality, and professional practicality. But the film simply doesn’t dig deep enough.

On the one hand, Buttigieg deserves credit for trying so hard to share his innermost thoughts and motivations. On the other, the very fact that he’s making this effort in front of a documentary camera gives him greater claim to the greatest political assets of all: relatability and authenticity.  Fans already drawn to his persona or politics will love the chance to see him in a (slightly) more intimate setting. And even skeptics, who notice that we learn little new about him, may find reason to respect his heartfelt and clearly considered intentions.

But the person likely to be most pleased with the end result is communications director Smith, who understands exactly how her industry works, and never takes her eyes off the prize.

“Mayor Pete” premieres on Prime Video Nov. 12.