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‘Don’t Bullshit Us, Peter’: A New Documentary Tries to Crack the Buttigieg Enigma

Moss learned to rely on Chasten. Really, the two colluded in the project. At one point, Moss is trying to interview Buttigieg — “and I could see he was slipping into this mode of like, ‘I’m talking to any reporter,’ and it’s just unusable.” So he asks Chasten to step in as the questioner. “I’ve never done that before with a documentary interview, and it felt a little transgressive, but we immediately got more interesting. I thought, ‘My God, now I’m filming them talking about this campaign together.’” Chasten sits down at their dining room table, behind a portrait of Kennedy propped up on a small piano. “How do you know how to do what you’re doing?” he asks his husband.

Buttigieg, in particular, laments what he calls the “gamification” of politics, but it’s Chasten who is constantly pushing up against what he feels are the boundaries of the campaign. When he wants to start telling audiences about the couple’s difficulty having kids — “it’s something very real and felt by a lot of people” — a staffer tells him it’s a bit too intimate to bring up publicly. The two briefly debate the question before the staffer says, “If you want to make it a part of ‘the narrative,’ we can have that conversation.”

Moss believes he wouldn’t have been able to make the film with just Buttigieg. “You couldn’t,” he says. “I think that I was really struggling. I thought, ‘Oh my God, I can’t make a film.’ Chasten allowed me to kind of short circuit what would normally either be impossible or take forever.”

You do see intimate moments in “Mayor Pete”: In March 2020, after dropping out of the race, you watch him return from the campaign trail, changing into sweatpants and slippers before taking calls from President Obama and Joe Biden. At home, he does laundry, brews Keurig, types on his iPad, wrestles with his dogs on the floor, takes Chasten on a “date night” to Dairy Queen (“Can we eat the ice cream before the chicken gets here?” he asks), plays dominoes with his family and works at the mayor’s office in South Bend. “Oh, Mr. Bill, Mr. Regular Bill, sitting here, on the mayor’s desk,” he hums in a singsong voice to a stack of paper, chipper as he signs each page with his fine blue marker. “This is how a bill becomes law!” he declares when an aide walks in. “Mhm,” she says, walking out.

There are notable absences in the film, too. Moss documents Buttigieg’s struggle with the police shooting of Eric Logan, a Black man in South Bend, but the film leaves out the tensions over race and inclusion that divided his own campaign staff. (Rather, Moss presents the operation as a small, home-grown family, where aides are expected to “be really, really kind,” as campaign manager Mike Schmuhl tells staff early in the film.) You also don’t hear Buttigieg talk about his father, who died just before his campaign launch, around the same time Moss began filming. Buttigieg didn’t discuss his grief on the campaign trail, and he doesn’t in the film. Moss says he didn’t want to overload the documentary with too much early biography.

“My way of coming at the world, the stronger the emotion is, the more private it is,” Buttigieg says. “And it is a strange thing, because politics is an emotional pursuit, of course.”

Chasten’s question for his husband — were you able to “be your true self on the campaign trail?” — is at the center of every run for office, and of every documentary that tries to reveal the harrowing gauntlet that is American presidential politics.

“Journeys With George,” Alexandra Pelosi’s home-movie-style film about her time embedded with the 2000 Bush campaign, shows the candidate as viewed from inside “the bubble” — a daily, rote exercise in following him from one place to the next. As reporters slip and slide across a frozen tarmac in Iowa, waiting to watch the candidate arrive, Houston Chronicle reporter R.G. Ratcliffe yells over the drone of jet engines, “This is insane! The only reason we’re out here is in case Bush comes out, slips on the ice and falls down — because we’re vicious predators.”

A more recent political documentary series, “Hillary,” shows a candidate looking on from the other side of the bubble: “I am a private person, but I think it’s important to be a private person if you’re in public arena,” Clinton tells filmmakers, “because the crushing intensity of total wall-to-wall coverage, the expectation that you share your innermost feelings with people — is there anything left if you’ve basically lived everything out in public?”

“Mayor Pete” presents viewers with something in between. The audience is neither on the outside looking in, nor fully inside. If Buttigieg was able to be his “true self” on the campaign trail, or in the documentary project he invited into his home for a year, the question is left open by Moss. “I’m always interested in the faces we put forward to the public and then the private self,” Moss says. “It does articulate to me a central question of Pete’s journey through the campaign and his own growth. It’s the question every candidate goes through. For Pete that has particular meaning, because he’s a gay man.”

Now a father to twins, Buttigieg has not participated in the promotion of the film. The only staff member interviewed in the documentary, the campaign manager, Mike Schmuhl, declined to discuss the project, too.

Moss did share a rough cut of the movie with Buttigieg and Chasten earlier this year. They both watched it. Buttigieg only offered one piece of feedback: Why wasn’t there more policy? “It may just be that they’re processing. It’s sort of hard to see past their own lived experience to what the film represents,” Moss says.

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