When Pete Buttigieg arrived on the national stage in 2019, he seemed, at first glance, to be an almost-too-perfect candidate. He had graduated from Harvard and Oxford, served in the Navy Reserves in Afghanistan, revived his Rust Belt city as a young mayor, and had recently found love after coming out of the closet only a few years prior.
Within months, he went from being a virtually unknown pol to a frontrunner. For his deepest supporters, he seemed to embody hope in a way that few politicians do. For others, Buttigieg seemed too good to be true. That sentiment felt particularly true in town halls and debates; Buttigieg came across as incredibly smart, but also a tad too well rehearsed.
Indeed, it was his first televised town hall that convinced Jesse Moss, a filmmaker known for directing Boys State (2020), that a documentary about Buttigieg would be worthwhile. After all, there had to be something more to this figure than the public was seeing—and if Moss was given extra access to him and his team, then maybe he could peel back the facade.
For the most part, Moss’s attempts were unsuccessful. In Mayor Pete, released on Amazon Prime Video last month, Buttigieg never really opens up the way that we (and presumably Moss) want him to. He remains elusive, answering even the most personal questions with that same near-scripted delivery.
“Maybe Buttigieg is always on,” Ben Kenigsberg wrote in his New York Times review of the film. That’s certainly true. Moss told Politico that Buttigieg would often slip into campaign mode during interviews
There are two storylines to Mayor Pete. First, there’s the underdog story of Buttigieg’s campaign, of which most viewers will likely be familiar. In the film’s best moments, that narrative feels inspiring. In its most generic moments, it feels like an extended campaign ad.
The second storyline, which is far more interesting but often buried, is Buttigieg’s struggle with authenticity.
“I made Pete promise that we would be our authentic selves,” says Chasten, Pete Buttigieg’s husband, early on. “And make sure that weren’t gonna have to sacrifice, you know, our true selves in order to make this project work.”
For a political candidate, that’s an odd thing to expect. Authenticity, especially in politics, is an extremely overrated concept. Politics is an inherently performative act. As Gilad Edelman noted in The Atlantic, “authenticity” is less about going off-script and more about “making the scripted seem spontaneous.”
Buttigieg clearly has a knack for that. “What sets Buttigieg apart as a political talent, then, is not really his intellect. It’s his ability to give a speech, or answer questions onstage, in a way that makes it seem as though he’s earnestly thinking through his beliefs in real time,” wrote Edelman in April 2019.
The film tells us that Buttigieg was preoccupied with keeping his promise to his husband throughout the campaign. During a debate prep session, Buttigieg’s communications director, Lis Smith, urges him to emote more. “He’s comin’ across like the fucking Tin Man up there,” she says.
“It was always framed as, like, ‘Let loose, be yourself,’” Buttigieg says in an interview during the film. “But to do that would not be myself. Or at least not be real or authentic.”
Overall, Mayor Pete seems overly fixated on Buttigieg’s self-declared existential challenges. Despite all the ink spilled over Buttigieg’s authenticity problem, we see very little of how the public perceives him. Somehow, the film completely ignores the wave of young progressives who saw Buttigieg as a corporatist moderate and came to all but loathe him; they virtually all supported either Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.
Instead, Mayor Pete focuses mainly on the occasional homophobic protestor at a rally and criticism from the Black community. Moss devotes nearly 20 minutes to Buttigieg’s response to a shooting in South Bend in which a white police officer killed Eric Logan, a Black resident. At a local town hall after the shooting, Buttigieg remains stoic and reserved as he faces criticism from the national press for not expressing more anger.
Afterwards, though, when a reporter asks backstage how the incident will affect his campaign, Buttigieg is at his most emotional. “I’m sick of these things being talked about in political terms, like it’s a show,” he says, with a slight voice crack. “It’s people’s lives.”
Days later, in preparation for the first debate of the primary, Smith pushes him to express more outrage about the incident, and he struggles. She eventually wins out, and after finally “letting” his guard down during the debate, Buttigieg is praised by the media. It’s a telling segment about the flaws of the national press corps.
Notably, Smith never really pushes him to express anything unreal. “This is, like, a thing that you feel,” she tells him, more like a tough-love therapist than a campaign adviser. Because Smith has that ability to be tough with him, she is more successful at peeling the layers off Buttigieg than Moss is—as the film is faithfully sympathetic to its protagonist.
In the end, Mayor Pete tells us little we don’t already know about Buttigieg and his campaign. I got the sense that Moss thought he would find some deeper story over the course of filming. But that story was never found.
Critics of Pete Buttigieg will of course argue that a Buttigieg documentary was doomed from the start—that a politician as robotic as Buttigieg would never render himself truly vulnerable or reveal his true self.
Ironically, the moments when Buttigieg seems to reveal the most are when he says he doesn’t like to open up. “The last thing I want to do is do or say something that’s not me in order to satisfy some desire for me to be more emotional,” he says. In other words, by refusing to buy into the public’s—and the media’s—idea of authenticity, he is somehow being authentic. Who knows, though? Maybe that was scripted, too.