Friday night saw the opening of NewFest’s 33rd New York LGBTQ+ Film Festival with Jesse Moss’ up close and personal chronicle of LGBTQ+ history in the making, Mayor Pete, at Manhattan’s SVA Theatre.
Before Pete Buttigieg had officially thrown his hat into the ring as a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, Moss began capturing footage of the then mayor of South Bend, Indiana and his husband Chasten, allowing the filmmaker behind-the-scenes access for the full duration of the campaign. That access is thrillingly intimate as we follow the couple during what was of course a momentous time in their own lives, while the film also provides a fascinatingly insightful glimpse into the demanding and precarious process of running for national office.
As a political portrait, there’s a consistency between the man sitting at home in his leather armchair (which he’s concerned might look “too regal”) being interviewed by Moss, and Pete the candidate in the campaign spotlight. Throughout, he comes across as unassuming, even-tempered, highly intelligent, compassionate, considered, dedicated, and tireless. A person of integrity who genuinely believes what he’s advocating. All attributes that make him a fine public servant, but not necessarily the most compelling subject for a documentary. As he admits at one point himself, most of his deepest thoughts go unspoken, while Chasten reveals that when they first started dating he would encourage Pete to be more open, asking him what was going on inside his head. Once on the trail, political strategist Lis Smith (a captivating figure), who served as the campaign’s senior communications director, reflects what has become a media talking point about Pete back to him, that he is seen as not showing enough emotion.
Along with his co-cinematographer Thorsten Thielow, and editor Jeff Gilbert, Moss allows the camera to linger on Pete both close and long enough to see those emotions and deep thoughts, even when they remain unarticulated. Although what he says might be interesting in itself, it’s often after Pete has finished speaking that Moss creates the most intriguing moments in the film just be remaining on his face; we can read so much in Buttigieg’s expressive eyes. Largely taking a fly-on-the-wall approach, Moss credits his audience with intelligence, generally not attempting to steer us on how to interpret what we’re watching, building a work of subtle power.
Although understandably restrained and circumspect at times, Pete never comes off as guarded or remote and through his interactions with supporters, especially those sharing poignant personal stories, and in his relationship with Chasten, we get to see more of the man behind the statesman.
There are some touching scenes between the couple, including a rare date night at a Dairy Queen. Clearly in love, they aren’t afraid to show affection for one another in front of the camera. The husbands recently became fathers, but in the film they are still contemplating the prospect of parenthood, with Pete saying that he’s excited about the idea but more able to envision Chasten as a dad than himself.
Although Pete is keen to ensure that his campaign and the coverage it generates is focused more on policy than his sexuality, the significance of him running for president as a publicly identifying gay man is not lost on him. He’s open about his internal struggle with acceptance, not coming out until he was 33, and during one of the televised primary debates he brings up some of the state and federally-sponsored LGBTQ discrimination he’s lived through, such as serving his country in the military during the era of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. A policy that existed in the long shadow of the Lavender Scare, the purging of gays and lesbians from federal jobs, initiated by the Eisenhower administration in 1953.
At times we see Chasten offering Pete advice on how he might talk about being gay in public and some mild tension arises when he points out that he’s not equally as visible as the other candidate’s spouses at certain points on the campaign trail. Most of the tension in the film though comes from the struggle between Pete’s commitment to remaining authentic while being compelled by the nature of the process to “make good television” during the debates, and we see him being rated and coached by his team during some intense and slightly awkward debate prep sessions.
When we see Pete questioned about homophobia and whether the country might be ready for a gay president his answers are solid, things become trickier for him when he’s asked about white privilege and what he has to offer Black voters and we see his team working with him on how to frame his approach. As Moss captures, when Eric Logan, a Black man who was fatally shot by a white police officer, Sgt. Ryan O’Neill, in South Bend in 2019, Mayor Buttigieg decided to call a town hall to listen to the concerns of his constituents. He remains calm under fire, but the event leads to analysis of the optics of his approach and how it might impact his campaign. To his credit, Pete seems genuinely more concerned with his duty as mayor during a traumatic time for his city.
When it comes to milestones in the campaign, wisely Moss makes these moments personal. We see Chasten excitedly calling through the bathroom door to tell Pete that he’s won the highest number of delegates in the Iowa caucus, before he starts playing the campaign’s uplifting anthem, Panic! At the Disco’s High Hopes, on his cellphone and adorably dances for joy. While when the campaign concludes we don’t hear Pete and Chasten’s speeches (Lou Reed’s bittersweet Perfect Day is playing on the soundtrack), but we do see them at home in sweatpants taking calls from President Obama and the Bidens.
The most recent former White House resident thankfully only makes a very brief appearance in archive news footage. Instead Moss illustrates the anger, hatred, and bigotry stoked by “the porn star President”, as we hear Butttigieg refer to him, through some interactions with a few of his vocal supporters, and in some comparisons between the two men made by those who are enthusiastic about Pete’s campaign, highlighting the alternative vision of America he offers. Had last November’s election result been different, watching Mayor Pete would have been a depressing experience, but happily that’s not the case.
At times deeply moving, this is ultimately a story of hope and although Pete might not have made it to the Oval Office, as we already know the film has a happy ending with Biden’s nomination of Buttigieg to the cabinet position of Secretary of Transportation. Something that’s particularly exciting to see unfold as the film progresses is Buttigieg growing in confidence and charisma, as an aura of “star power”, as Chasten puts it, begins to radiate from him. Who knows, Moss may well be making a sequel to Mayor Pete a few years down the line.
By James Kleinmann
Mayor Pete debuts globally on Amazon Prime Video November 12th 2021.