Jesse Moss was eager to examine a historic presidential campaign when he signed on for “Mayor Pete,” a new documentary about Pete Buttigieg.
Much to his surprise, he says, the finished film is as much about love as it is about politics.
“Mayor Pete,” released Friday on Amazon Prime, is breezier than anyone familiar with the bitterly divisive climate of the 2020 presidential election might expect. It follows Buttigieg ― the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and current transportation secretary ― as he makes his bid for the Democratic nomination, becoming the first openly gay man in history to do so. (Watch the trailer for “Mayor Pete” above.)
Although Joe Biden ultimately became the Democratic nominee and won the presidency, Moss’ film nonetheless presents Buttigieg as a transcendent political figure ― namely when the focus is on the candidate’s marriage to his husband, Chasten Buttigieg.
“It’s a film about a relationship that just so happens to be at the center of a presidential campaign,” Moss, who is based in San Francisco, told HuffPost. “I love that it’s kind of a sneaky love story, a kind of coming-of-age story for Pete. His young relationship is tested, and it plays out so publicly.”
Indeed, the most compelling moments in “Mayor Pete” are those that show Buttigieg grappling with how to present his sexuality to prospective voters who may not be comfortable with LGBTQ candidates. One such scene shows Chasten warning his husband that a 2019 LGBTQ Victory Fund speech contained references to coming out that, though well-intended, could be misinterpreted as thoughts of suicide. Later, Chasten points out that he won’t be positioned as prominently as other candidates’ spouses at an event in Iowa.
On the flip side, much of the documentary’s tension is provided by Buttigieg’s communications director, Lis Smith, who pummels him with fiery criticisms and suggests he comes across like “the fucking Tin Man” during debate prep. Another notable scene shows Buttigieg being confronted about his rocky history with race relations and limited appeal among Black voters ― topical discussion points the film may have benefited from exploring further.
“Mayor Pete” premiered at the Chicago International Film Festival last month and was also screened at NewFest, New York’s LGBTQ film festival. Reviews have been mixed. CNN called the documentary “fascinating,” but also noted the “most candid moments” involved “those other than the candidate.” The New York Times similarly argued that the film “more often plays like outtakes from the trail than an inside glimpse.”
Moss, whose directing credits include “Boys State,” acknowledges that Buttigieg could be a “daunting” and emotionally guarded subject.
“He’s a little inscrutable and not someone who’s known to be immediately emotionally relatable,” the Emmy-winning filmmaker said of Buttigieg. “So the film is also my way of asking: How do we choose our political leaders, and what is this process that we’ve created asking of them? What are the qualities that we expect them to have?”
Ultimately, Moss hopes “Mayor Pete” will offer an emotional boost to anyone disheartened by current politics, regardless of their stances. He also isn’t opposed to a followup documentary if Buttigieg, now a father of two, considers a second presidential run in 2024 or beyond.
“I’m not here to say, ‘Pete should be your man’ ― that’s a decision people have to make on their own,” he said. “But I think the theme of the campaign, whether you support Pete or not, is powerful. I’d like to think everyone’s ready to heal a little bit, especially if we’re going to confront some of the profound problems of our country and our world.”