“We’ve gotta run like there’s nothing to lose,” says Beto O’Rourke toward the beginning of Running With Beto, the HBO documentary that follows the former congressman in his 2018 attempt to seize the Texas senate seat held by Ted Cruz.
But the thing is, there is actually a lot to lose, as anyone who remembers watching O’Rourke lose, just barely, to Cruz in last year’s midterms will surely remember. Every seat counted in that election, which gave the Democrats control over the House but saw them cede a bit of ground to Republicans in the Senate. The election also was important for symbolic reasons, functioning as a litmus test on how energized voters really were after two years of the Trump administration. O’Rourke knows all this, and so does this documentary, directed by David Modigliani with less interest in mythologizing O’Rourke and more of an eye toward capturing a flash point in Texas political history, complete with a visual aesthetic reminiscent of a Friday Night Lights episode.
To be clear: The documentary spends more time with O’Rourke than any other subject, and during those moments he does some of the Beto O’Rourk–iest things possible. He jumps up on the hood of a car to address a group of supporters. He delivers the now-famous response to a town hall question about whether he supports black athletes taking a knee during the national anthem. (The film shows how quickly O’Rourke’s remarks went viral, and how quickly, in turn, Cruz used them to fire up the state’s conservative base.) He gesticulates like crazy and laughs at the fact that he is mocked for that, and also gets snippy with his staff when every engine isn’t running perfectly.
The impression one gets of O’Rourke is that of a politician trying to do things his way and, like every politician before him, sometimes succeeding and sometimes not. He is flawed, something he acknowledges: “I know I was a giant asshole to be around sometimes,” he tells his circle of top aides while thanking them for everything they did. But as he travels to literally every county in Texas — all 254 of them — and meets with constituents, young gun control activists, and advocates for African-Americans disproportionately punished by the criminal justice system, he comes across as sincere in his desire to help those who have been ignored or treated unfairly. At the same time, we see how all that travel and focus on his campaign affects his three young children, an acknowledgment of his sacrifice as well as the burden placed on his wife, Amy, to keep things running at home. “I just want it to be over,” says his oldest son, Ulysses, at one point.
Running With Beto debuted earlier this year at South by Southwest, a few days before O’Rourke announced his plans to run for president in 2020. With that campaign seemingly flatlined right now, it seems unlikely that the debut of this movie on HBO Tuesday night will push the needle one way or the other. He doesn’t come across as mean or controversial enough for there to be significant blowback, nor does the movie make such a persuasive case for him that it could result in any kind of bump. It’s fairly down the middle, which, ironically, is what some say is the problem with O’Rourke himself.
Like another recent political documentary about fired-up candidates trying to swing the country in a fresh direction, Netflix’s Knock Down the House, Running With Beto captures how much enthusiasm has been generated by those frustrated by both President Trump and Republican decision-making at various levels of government. Yet it also reflects how difficult it remains, especially in battleground states, to sway people whose thinking on various issues has been hardened into cement.
Amanda Elise Salas, a Latinx Beto supporter who used to be a Republican, is one of the more interesting side characters who emerge from Running With Beto. A once closeted lesbian who was raised in a very religious family, Salas regularly argues with her stepfather, a Trump supporter and avid Fox News viewer who cannot be swayed by anything his stepdaughter has to say. “I don’t know if he really understands what’s going on,” her stepfather says of Cruz. “But I cannot go Democrat because for one thing, I know who they are and what their history is. They’re socialists. I’m not going to go socialist.”
Salas has an equally challenging time getting potential voters to even register. Camped out in front of a movie theater in McAllen, she’s either ignored by passersby or laughed at when she encourages them to sign up to vote the day before the midterms. In one of the wryest, funniest shots in the movie, the camera makes a point of capturing the marquee at that theater where she’s encountering so much apathy. “Trolls 2,” it says on one line. Then below it: “Ernest Scared Stupid” alongside the words, on the other side of the sign: “Since 1947.”
When the final results come in and it becomes clear that O’Rourke has lost, his team and supporters are naturally heartbroken. But it’s striking how quickly they are able to bounce back. It’s as if the 2016 presidential election and the subsequently depressing political atmosphere have given everyone battle scars that make them more determined in defeat.
“I had a lot of people messaging me tonight being like, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do now,’” Salas says shortly after Cruz’s victory. “I’m like, ‘You’re going to cry about this tonight. And tomorrow, we’re going to work.’”
Whether they’re energized by O’Rourke or not, left-leaning viewers may take away a modicum of hope from moments like this one, and from the determination that O’Rourke’s historic near upset inspired in a generation that refuses, despite the odds, to be deterred.