The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Running With Beto’ catches the candidate at his most golden, before his mojo ran off the road

“Running with Beto” captures Beto O’Rourke on the 2018 campaign trail. (Charlie Gross/HBO)

Quick, before his presidential ambitions vaporize completely, let’s rewind to a happier point in the ascension story of Beto O’Rourke, the Kennedy-toothed, former congressman from El Paso who came within a couple hundred thousand votes of unseating the incumbent Republican senator, Ted Cruz, in the 2018 midterms — which would have been something.

It was something, as filmmaker David Modigliani’s admiring HBO documentary “Running With Beto” (airing Tuesday) attempts to portray. The camera intimately follows O’Rourke’s earnest, grass-roots campaign as it gains momentum over several months, riding shotgun with the candidate and his closest aides as he road-trips to all 254 Texas counties and speaks passionately to small crowds made up of beaming believers and stone-faced voters, many of whom keep their arms folded with ingrained, red-state doubt. O’Rourke’s luck improves, the universe loosens and the hoped-for mojo bursts through. The crowds get larger; an excitement takes hold; the national media develops a crush.

Though the events seen in “Running With Beto” are barely a year old, the film can’t help but feel outdated and already archival. Whatever passion the 46-year-old stirred in his home state (and beyond) has since morphed this spring into a series of missteps on the national stage as O’Rourke, rejuvenated by solo road trips and the privilege to soul-search, became one of many, many Democratic hopefuls for president.

The Vanity Fair magazine profile of him in the April issue — with its Annie Leibovitz photographs and an uncomfortably self-aggrandizing cover quote (“Man, I’m just born to be in it”) — landed with a thud. O’Rourke’s habit of standing on diner counters to rouse Iowa voters seemed more ill-mannered than casually cool. The poll numbers turned south.

Political commentators and cultural critics have already seized on this rare occurrence of Gen-X hubris in action, recognizing the great sin of any Fugazi-loving, progressive bro who used to be in his own failed rock band: Without taking a dime of PAC money or corporate campaign contributions, O’Rourke has been recast as a sellout, a poser, a trustafarian trying to relate to the common folk. All those surprise pitfalls into which he unwittingly pitfell, simply by trying too hard, believing in himself, reading too deeply and empathizing too conspicuously. Shame on him!

If O’Rourke were part of the millennial generation, the boundless optimism seen in “Running With Beto” (and running with him still) would sound much more melodious, because if you’re a millennial, selling out ceases to be any sort of character flaw. This is the Instagram crowd, which was taught from birth to sense their inherent gifts and seize their own destinies, with no limit to self-branding opportunities. At its heart, “Running With Beto” wants to be a movie about Pete Buttigieg.

How is this possibly fair? It isn't, but it remains a flawed trait of O'Rourke's (and my) generation — to crap on one another's hopes and dreams the moment we sense a calculated move, a phony marketing plan or the stench of true politics. And so it happens that Gen X's political legacy will instead belong to the likes of former House speaker Paul D. Ryan and his love of self-determined capitalism above all else, or to newly sworn Supreme Court justices Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett Kavanagh, champing at the bit to roll back much of the social progress that once stirred hope in people rather than fill them with reactionary zeal. It's so messed up.

But all this is miles and miles away from the emotional or political territory that Modigliani’s film sets out to explore. “Running With Beto” rarely rises above a desire to be a fly on the wall, on the off chance that it will witness history. For campaign junkies, the film is stuffed with the real-life grind of ground-level work, not unlike an extra-long episode of Showtime’s wheels-up docuseries “The Circus” — the endless driving, the ringing of doorbells and shaking of hands; the impromptu speeches, the sweat-stained dress shirts, the face-rubbing exhaustion.

O’Rourke is revealed to be one of those individuals who takes great comfort in referring to himself to in the plural form, always a “we” where “I” is perhaps too lonely, too responsible in the face of adversity: We gotta run. What are we going to do? Nobody asked us to do this. Should we make it official?

Part of this comes from O’Rourke’s evident dedication to an equitable domestic arrangement: As a husband and father circa 2018 he must, at a minimum, find the time and effort to present as a helpful and capable partner-parent — a challenge Modigliani could have worked harder to explore beyond driveway basketball games and short-order pancakes in the kitchen. How does the O’Rourke household function? There are only hints of its pleasures and tensions.

O’Rourke’s wife, Amy, remains something of a cipher throughout the film, plastering a smile on her public face and saying all the supportive things that need to be said, while somehow seeming less than thrilled with her husband’s ambitions, especially when the couple’s smart, camera-friendly children (Ulysses, Molly and Henry) pine for something more than a FaceTime call from Dad.

This, too, is a generational concern, the work-life balance that we tend to wear like cinder-block necklaces. “Running With Beto” touches lightly on O’Rourke’s strained relationship with his father, which went through a prickly phase of overbearingness matched by teen rebellion.

Nothing stresses out a modern dad more than the specter of a 1970s-’80s rerun of this dynamic — the fear that he will be remembered mostly for his relentless commitment to being out of town. Many Gen-Xers grew up as latchkey kids who were forbidden from calling our parents at work unless someone was bleeding to death; Beto and Amy O’Rourke, like their peers, clearly fret over the emotional toll his campaign will take on the family unit.

Thus, a scene in which Henry retreats behind the couch one night to call his father, and instead gets his voice mail message, resonates painfully with other recent documentaries about adults who work their tails off in today’s intensely wired political/media landscape. Remember how, in Liz Garbus’s 2018 Showtime docuseries “The Fourth Estate,” New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman was seen assuring her son, by phone, that he can’t die in his nightmares? Very often in “Running With Beto,” a viewer can’t be blamed for wondering whether the candidate might just be happier back home, as a nominally employed community activist — or, if his ambitions burn so hotly, as the mayor of El Paso?

As it checks off the boxes that make a typical inside-the-campaign documentary (including clips from Cruz's campaign appearances, in which the senator clownishly but shrewdly rouses Texas's conservative base with boogeyman notions of O'Rourke's liberalism), "Running With Beto" works toward one of the candidate's finest and virally shining moments: his reply at a campaign stop in Houston to being asked whether he supports NFL players who take a knee during the national anthem to protest racial injustice in police shootings.

Oddly, though, “Running With Beto” is most compelling when O’Rourke isn’t in it. In moving portraits of some of his die-hard supporters, the film finally becomes the soaring ode to grass-roots politics that it desires to be, conveying just how hard it is to knock on doors, post signs and carry one’s pride as a Democrat in a state so determinedly red.

“I’m guilty of being asleep at the wheel,” says Shannon Gay, a feisty, gun-owning O’Rourke supporter who describes her one-stoplight town of Bulverde as “the dark heart of Trump-ghanistan” and plants distinctive, black “Beto” signs wherever she sees too much red. “I had no idea about the goings-on in this country and how much power we relinquished. And how much of a fight we have to go through to get it back.”

O’Rourke supporter Amanda Elise Salas, who was Republican until the 2016 presidential campaign, works to register voters in McAllen, facing widespread apathy. Arguing about border policy and the separation of immigrant families, Salas hits a wall with her conservative stepfather, who tells her he’d never vote for a Democrat, because they’re all socialists. “That’s all there is to it,” he says.

“At least he’s not yelling,” Amanda’s mother observes from the adjacent living-room recliner. “You guys usually wind up yelling at each other.”

“Because there’s a camera here,” the stepfather replies.

It’s a telling moment about what it was like to actually run with Beto as a golden ideal — the thrilling taste of his charisma, the cameras everywhere that briefly captured his hopeful velocity, against all odds.

Running With Beto (90 minutes) airs Tuesday at 8 p.m. on HBO, with encores.