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‘Mayor Pete’ review: Buttegieg’s historic presidential bid

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.

Admirers of Pete Buttigieg interested in revisiting his campaign for the 2020 U.S. presidency won’t likely take in much they don’t already know or haven’t generally felt or witnessed in the entertaining but largely safe verité documentary “Mayor Pete.”

Director Jesse Moss (“Boys State”) goes gently behind the scenes — if not fully behind the curtain — over the course of a year as the then-South Bend, Ind., mayor jumps into the presidential race and crisscrosses the country with devoted, charmingly proactive husband Chasten, as the candidate preps for interviews, town halls, debates and other whistle stops.

The film — or at least Buttigieg — attempts to answer a fundamental question about running for political office: “How do you master the game without it changing you?” It’s a fine line that the ex-Naval officer and Rhodes scholar seems to constantly straddle as, in his astonishingly composed way, he fields blunt input from his at times underwhelmed campaign staff. (They compare him to a “wooden soldier,” “an anthropologist” and “the f—ing Tin Man,” the latter two tags courtesy of spirited senior communications director Lis Smith.)

Still, if Buttigieg doesn’t come off as the scrappiest, most effusive or emotionally stark candidate (he does get more impressively fired up on stage as he goes), he knows how to work his sizable fan base with his unassailable smarts and decency, nerdy-sexy likability and “admittedly unorthodox story.”

And those qualities serve him well as we watch this underdog emerge victorious from the crucial, first real election test — the Iowa Democratic caucuses — narrowly beating closest competitor Bernie Sanders. Awaiting the final results of this contest, which were delayed several weeks due to glitches in the reporting and counting of votes, was certainly a nail-biter for Buttigieg and company. But Moss, who co-wrote with Amanda McBaine and editor Jeff Gilbert, doesn’t whip up much cinematic tension for it.

Involving as the film is, it is decidedly short on propulsion and significant conflict, save a segment in which Buttigieg is called to task by his South Bend constituents after a Black resident is fatally shot by a white police officer. But even then, the movie is as earnestly what-you-see-is-what-you-get as the candidate himself.

Of course, it was downhill for Buttigieg post-Iowa and he left the race shortly after losses in the Nevada caucuses and primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina. He takes the defeat with the same dignity and lack of drama we’ve seen from him all along, especially during reflective and typically measured yet heartfelt interview bits from a sit-down with Moss that are peppered throughout the documentary.

Again, no surprises here, the film ends with then President-elect Biden’s warm nomination of Buttigieg as secretary of transportation. He went on to become the first out gay, Senate-confirmed member of the U.S. Cabinet — and at 39, one of its youngest ever.

A more expansive and trenchant and, let’s hope, gripping look at Buttigieg may yet be told, perhaps in tandem with another presidential run. The good news, as he notes here, is that time is on his side. Yes, it is.

‘Mayor Pete’

Rated: R, for language

Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes

Playing: Starts Nov. 12, Laemmle NoHo 7, North Hollywood; also on Amazon Prime Video

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