The Pete Buttigieg Documentary Is an Empty Portrait of an Empty Politician

Amazon’s new Pete Buttigieg documentary attempts the impossible: making the disturbingly empty yet also unnervingly ambitious mayor of South Bend somehow seem like a compelling historical figure. It fails.

Pete Buttigieg speaking at the Moving America Forward Forum hosted by United for Infrastructure at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in Las Vegas, Nevada, on February 16, 2020. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

Earlier this month, the Washington Post reported on the mounting preoccupation within Democratic circles about who will be at the top of the ticket in the next presidential election. With Joe Biden’s future uncertain, two names have emerged as potential candidates for as early as 2024 if Biden refrains from seeking a second term. One of them, logically enough, is the sitting vice president, though Kamala Harris’s rock-bottom approval ratings are acknowledged to be an issue. The other — quite bafflingly if you aren’t the kind of person who non-ironically posts Democratic Avenger memes or resides in one of a handful of gilded Beltway zip codes — is Transportation secretary and 2020 also-ran Pete Buttigieg, whose mere presence in such an article is itself an astonishing statement about the hollowness of centrist liberalism in 2021.

Nevertheless, it’s in this light that we must, regrettably, view the new film Mayor Pete: a documentary portrait of the former mayor of South Bend’s longshot 2020 campaign for the presidency from which we are clearly intended to infer Big Things ahead. Buttigieg, it seems, is going to be with us for some time, and while it’s difficult to disagree with the characterization offered by Matthew Zarenkiewicz in his review for the Baffler (“a bizarre and unsettling documentary no one asked for”), director Jesse Moss’s film does indeed offer the viewer real insight into the vision of politics Buttigieg can be expected to champion as a budding standard-bearer for the Democratic Party.

From its opening scene to its closing credits, Mayor Pete is essentially two things: a rather tortured attempt to portray a conventional centrist politician as a heterodox renegade; a movie about a politician seeking high office that is utterly devoid of politics. In introducing us to its eponymous hero, we learn courtesy of a few news clips that Buttigieg “did things” to “transform housing” in the city he once governed (more on that here); we learn that he raised the minimum wage for city employees, and that his tenure as mayor saw the conversion of an old factory into a business park. Even this, it turns out, is mostly adornment and mostly about introducing us to Pete himself — the candidate’s own personal mythology being the scaffold on which the whole of the documentary, just like the Buttigieg brand itself, ultimately rests.

In one scene, this is more or less made explicit by advisor Lis Smith (recently in the news for helping Andrew Cuomo play defense amid allegations of sexual harassment) who ecstatically tells someone over the phone, “I really, really do think it’s as much about his style and about who he is as a person as it is about policy and all that stuff.” If anything, Smith’s comment is something of an understatement. Pete’s schtick is pure affect, and the filmmakers clearly like it that way. Officially, Buttigieg is someone consumed by the granular details of policy and public administration. But, in the universe of the film, wonkery is ultimately just another personality trait — a state of being rather than a means to any particular end.

The same applies to another major plank of the Buttigieg mythology, which invokes evocative descriptors like “outsider” and “unorthodox,” but as vague personal qualities with no relation to actual political positions. In the world of liberal personality politics, elected figures increasingly seek to represent people less by championing specific policies than by weaving together broad cultural narratives and aspects of their own biographies. Revealingly, then, the closest Buttigieg comes in the film to explaining why he should be president amounts to a mash-up of his background in municipal governance, the Midwestern experience with deindustrialization, and his own coming-out:

I started feeling like what was happening in the country and what was happening in our city were more and more one and the same. And since what was happening in the city broadly worked, I realized I had something to offer which was just different. I saw something in common with the alienation or the fear of people worried about auto jobs, and alienation or fear of a kid coming out, because they all had to do with where you fit, and that there was way more overlap in those stories than you would think. The more I understood it, the more I found ways to give voice to it. And it all came down to that theme of belonging.

If you lived through the 2020 Democratic primaries, there’s little by way of plot that will catch you by surprise. Mayor Pete spans the just over one year between Buttigieg’s entry into the race and his campaign suspension ahead of Super Tuesday, crescendoing with the Iowa caucuses. Punctuated by news clips and one-on-one interviews with the candidate (and his much more likable and human-seeming husband Chasten), much of the film consists of rallies, backroom discussions, and would-be private moments caught on camera.

In one of the only memorable scenes, Buttigieg is forced to leave the campaign trail for South Bend, where a black resident has been murdered by a police officer. Grilled at a town hall, the mayor tells justifiably angry citizens that he feels their pain but is unable or unwilling to offer any concrete proposals to address it. (It’s unclear exactly how Moss wants us to feel here, but the documentary’s overriding identification with Pete’s inner thoughts and personal dramas blunts any potential critical impact.) After Iowa, in which Buttigieg brazenly declared victory before any results had actually been announced, Mayor Pete finishes rather abruptly, in an accidentally fitting end for a documentary concerned with a flash-in-the-pan campaign driven largely by media buzz.

Even by the usual standards of political hagiography, it’s a remarkably fluffy and inconsequential viewing experience — though, in Moss’s defense, it could hardly have been otherwise given the subject. The almost comical absence of program or ideology in a documentary about a man running for president has far more to do with Buttigieg himself than it does with quality of the filmmaking, and, albeit accidentally, Mayor Pete does tell us something very real about the way centrist liberalism increasingly seeks to cloak its pro-corporate vision with the politics of personality.