The Senate race between incumbent Republican Ted Cruz and Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke is one of the most intensely covered elections of 2018. Celebrities like Jimmy Kimmel and Ellen Degeneres have gotten in on the action, and it seems like all eyes are on the candidates.
But despite the crush of coverage, Austin filmmaker Steve Mims believes there’s space for a documentary that deepens the understanding of the Cruz and O’Rourke, who, in some decidedly non-political respects, don’t seem that different. “They’re almost the same age,” Mims says. “They both have Ivy League educations. And it turns that both had fathers who were very influential on them. It’s truly incredible that you could get two grown men raised in the same state that have totally opposite views of everything, philosophically and about character. The factors that led them down the path they’ve taken are important to get a handle on.”
Mims’ latest work, Run Like the Devil, opened last week in Austin and is being shown across Texas. He said he deliberately set out to create a carefully balanced portrayal of the race, including extensive interviews with both candidates. The film already has been screened in Tyler and Nacogdoches, and upcoming shows are scheduled for El Paso, Huntsville, Lubbock, McAllen, San Antonio, Amarillo, Wichita Falls, Dallas, Lewisville, Fort Worth, and—outside of the state—in Washington, D.C. And the documentary team is ready to hear from people who want to arrange a screening in other locales. (Full disclosure: Mims interviewed me in 2017 for the film because of my extensive history covering O’Rourke in El Paso, and I play a small role in the final product. I wasn’t compensated for the appearance, though I do appear in the credits.)
Mims is no stranger to tackling politically charged subjects, from cutbacks in higher education funding to the death penalty. His hilarious 2016 campaign ad for Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty was one of the best political commercials in history. He initially decided to do a film on the 2018 Texas Senate race because he didn’t want a repeat of what he called “shallow” coverage of the 2012 election between Cruz and Democrat Paul Sadler, which the Republican won by 16 points. “I just didn’t feel that there was a lot of information. I also felt that there was this inevitability built into the media coverage of that race,” Mims says. He was initially drawn to O’Rourke’s underdog story and early entry into the race, but knew a focus on just the Democratic nominee would turn off a big chunk of the potential audience in these polarized times.
The documentary premiered on Thursday at the Austin Film Society, offering a test of how his balanced approach would play before a partisan audience. “I was trying to be very careful to make it as balanced and down the middle as we can make it. I worried that people wouldn’t be able to tolerate that in Austin, but they did,” Mims says. “People really appreciated that it laid all that out. People were saying in the Q&A that they think it’ll play in Midland or something and have people cheering for the Cruz part of it.”
Perhaps the most interesting part of the 59-minute film is the study of the deep influence the fathers of Cruz and O’Rourke have on their sons. “Cruz’s story is a lot more complex and there’s a lot more to get into. Beto’s is relatively simple. Cruz’s father is a minor celebrity in his own right, so there’s a lot of archival material on him,” Mims says. O’Rourke’s mother, Melissa, and wife Amy, are interviewed on that subject, and I touch on it a bit. O’Rourke’s father, Pat, was a longtime El Paso political figure who served as a county commissioner and county judge as a Democrat, and later switched parties for an unsuccessful congressional run as a Republican. He died in a bicycle accident in 2001. Cruz’s father was born in Cuba, initially supported Fidel Castro’s revolution, then rejected him because of Castro’s communism. Rafael Cruz went on to become an influential pastor who shaped Ted Cruz’s faith and his conservative politics.
Mims initially envisioned a two-part documentary. The first would be released in the midst of the campaign to explore the candidates, with a follow-up after the election to examine what happened in the race. But he had to abandon those plans. “We never raised enough money. Frankly, we didn’t raise enough money to do the first film. We’ve been able to cover expenses and that’s about it,” he says. Mims plans to update Run Like the Devil after the November election, but he doesn’t plan any more filming on the race.
Electoral documentaries usually come out after the election is over and the outcome long settled. Think The War Room and Weiner. Releasing a political documentary smack in the middle of a campaign is unusual and presents unique challenges. “From the beginning we’ve always said that this documentary cannot be another version of the news. That it has to have something that conventional news doesn’t have,” Mims says. “The news, in a campaign like right now, is mostly a horse race, the tit for tat, the negative ads, the response and whatever. And I think that what this film does is that it sets all that stuff aside and says, ‘this is how we got to where we are.’ Because there’s a part in the film that’s about what’s happened with the Democratic and Republican parties in Texas. And then, here are the two people who are in competition for this job. And then here’s some of the more—I don’t want to say the most important—but here are issues that people are passionate about.”