Picture you and a couple of buddies spending a long night with a couple of cases of Schlitz and some moderately strong weed, then being told the next day that it was time to watch the film somebody made of your antics. How freaked out would you be to learn that such a film even exists? How mortifying would it be to watch it?
Running with Beto–level mortifying, I think.
Shielding their gaze against the afternoon sunlight, skulls feeling like asphalt getting a light once-over from a jackhammer, Beto fanboys must be watching this HBO documentary about the ex-congressman’s doomed Senate race last fall and asking one another, “Duuuuuude. How was it smart to send $80 million of our money to a billionaire’s son-in-law? Why did we try to pitch Texas on Reality Bites Bobby Kennedy?” A better title for this doc would have been “Beto: After the Bong.”
The speediest bong-rip-to-hangover moment comes when O’Rourke is captured answering a question about the NFL’s national-anthem protesters — posed by a voter who disagrees with them — by supporting them unequivocally and even saying, “I can think of nothing more American.” We watch the Facebook meter excitedly clocking up millions of hits. Beto is viral! Ellen DeGeneres wants to meet up! So does Stephen Colbert! The Washington Post says O’Rourke has conquered the Internet! The morning after arrives with campaign chief David Wysong: “So the Cruz campaign, they’ve got their negative hit. It’s what they wanted. . . . Beto’s favorabilities have gone downward.” Maybe there are some things more American than insulting the American flag.
Campaign field director Zack Malitz, rallying legions of campaign volunteers who have that eerie Children of the Damned glow, is shown announcing that “Tuesday, November 6, is the day the world ends.” (Rrrrrrrrip!) “There is no day after that.” (Exhale.) “Elections are a matter of life and death!” (Rrrrrrip!) “This is possibly the most important thing that most of us will do with our lives.” (Exhale.) How does everyone feel about this the day after? Two minutes earlier, we watched one of Beto’s forlorn sons lamenting that, while he is used to his dad being away, “my mom’s gone, like, three days a week now, and so for half the week there’s, like, no one there.” The kids are so desperate for contact that they’ve resorted to writing letters to Dad. I doubt the sequencing here is meant to remind us that raising children is possibly the most important thing most of us will do with our lives, but that’s the takeaway for everyone who isn’t such a political zombie that he lives only for the netherworld of knocking on strangers’ doors and telling them the fate of a single Senate race is going to make a big difference in their lives. As it turned out, even if O’Rourke had won, the Senate would have remained in Republican hands. His candidacy really didn’t matter very much at all.
O’Rourke’s curious strategy for unseating Ted Cruz in the Senate combined oversharing boring stuff, which made him look vapid, and playing to liberals, which made him look liberal. He mistook Texas for California, and with his curious combination of affectless diction and random pauses, he even sounded like ur-Californian Keanu Reeves: “So thank you, for being part. Of something really. Exciting. That’s taking place in Texas right now.” Siri and Alexa have more lifelike intonations.
The Beto phenomenon was a cult of personality. But where’s the personality? The void at the center of the candidate appears to be the reason his once-substantial support has, in his even-more-Quixotic presidential bid, softened to approximately the state of butter on the El Paso sidewalk in June. Filmmaker David Modigliani enjoyed lots of access to the candidate yet leaves us knowing no more about O’Rourke than we knew coming in. He’s Very Online! He Drives Around a Lot! He Gives Speeches! He has a Wife and Three Kids! That’s . . . about it. We don’t learn much about his politics except the stalest imaginable formulations (“We’ve gotta change the direction of our country”). A flunky’s idea of an awesome campaign maneuver is to broadcast the candidate’s every action for 24 solid hours. There’s a reason that people don’t usually do this: “We’re in an elevator right now” is among the statements O’ Rourke delivers. At least Chance the Gardener knew when to say nothing.
O’Rourke is certainly an unusual candidate. Many a politician must hear concerns about the criminal-justice system, but few respond the way Beto does, by reflecting on the two times he was arrested. And, er, hinting that the best strategy for dealing with the system is to have a daddy who is a judge. He also ties his politics to his early-’90s fondness for punk rock, but it comes out strangely, as a denunciation of “corporate” Democrats. Is this supposed to endear him to Texas Republicans, or is he trying to run to the left of the national Democratic party in Texas? Sounds like the latter to me.
The director of the film is otherwise so unable to generate any heat from his room-temperature candidate that he hands over scenes to fans and volunteers, some of whom are much more colorful. All of them pronounce “Beto” in a weird, culty way: You have to hit the T twice, so it’s Bet-toe. Says Shannon Gay, a supporter, as she is putting a giant Beto sign on her roof, “I came with an idea, literally pulled it out of my a**.” Ew. She likes Beto because, she says, Senator Cruz “thinks he has the right to know what we’ve got going on in our pants and make decisions about what we do with our lives but we can’t know what’s going on in his pants?” I don’t know what she’s talking about either. It’s funny when she sticks on a temporary Beto tattoo, though, given that O’Rourke turned out to be a human temporary tattoo.
In the end, as we get the result everyone who wasn’t hitting the bong expected, the campaign staffers skip the usual step of blaming the press (because, really, how could they?) and blame the voters. “I mean the apathy is disgusting, and it’s real, so real,” says one. Too bad the money shot isn’t in the movie. Modigliani doesn’t offer any footage of O’Rourke at the moment he learns he has lost. What can it be like to learn that, instead of becoming a duke of D.C., you will instead be an unemployed ex-fad, the Vanilla Ice of politics? We don’t know, as we don’t see O’Rourke until some time later, when he has recovered his composure and is as boring as usual. In the elevator to the arena where he is about to give his concession speech, he hears “Don’t Stop Believing,” which is also the last song Tony Soprano heard before his career abruptly ended.