‘Running with Beto’: The offstage version of Beto O’Rourke

Political Theater Podcast, Episode 77

Beto O’Rourke’s campaign for Senate in Texas provided plenty of fodder, warts and all, for David Modigliani’s ‘Running with Beto’ documentary on HBO. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Filmmaker David Modigliani got to first base with Beto O’Rourke. At an amateur club baseball game in Austin, Texas, in early 2017, O’Rourke, center fielder for the Los Diablitos de El Paso, singled and introduced himself to Modigliani, first baseman for the Texas Playboys Baseball Club, and said he was a congressman running for Senate.

This anecdote doesn’t make it into Modigliani’s documentary for HBO, “Running with Beto,” but it fits right into the movie’s vibe. O’Rourke’s “Let’s put on a multimillion-dollar Senate campaign” approach did not suffer from a lack of exposure, but Modigliani casts it in a different light by showing more than just the Texas Democrat’s armpit-sweat and crowd-surfing, DIY schtick. He wanted to document someone like O’Rourke “trying something new” in Texas, where Democrats “have been banging their heads against the wall for 30 years.”

That includes a few moments that show us why the campaign caught fire. It also includes the monotony of road food, uncomfortable times when O’Rourke chews out his campaign staff, and heartfelt ones where the emotional toll on his young family comes through. It’s easy to see why he connected with voters. But Modigliani also goes offstage with the candidate and his team and does not flinch from out-warting the warts-and-all O’Rourke.

Spoiler alert: O’Rourke ending up losing that 2018 race to Republican incumbent Ted Cruz. After a little time off, he jumped into the race for president, joining the expansive 2020 Democratic field. Whether he can translate the energy and enthusiasm from his Senate run to the national stage is still an open question.

As many high-flying stars do, he has come down to Earth a bit. But his natural gifts as a politician, and his ability to raise boatloads of campaign cash, will ensure his spot on the national stage for a while. That’s where a film like “Running with Beto” comes in handy, giving viewers an off-camera view of the man, amid one of the defining endeavors of his life, and before the spotlight started to shine so bright. 

Modigliani had carte blanche access and full editorial control, ensuring his vision of the campaign — and O’Rourke — would be the only thing that guided his storytelling. On the latest Political Theater podcast, the filmmaker discusses the year and a half he spent on the road, his previous film “Crawford,” punk rock and Texas politics. 

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