It’s strange to think that in the infancy of the United States, the time of the “founding fathers” that men like Mitt Romney are so quick to namedrop as an era to aspire too, it was considered taboo for Presidential candidates to actually campaign on their own behalf. They were supposed to stay at home, out of sight, while various friends, newspapers and party members did their campaigning for them. Campaigning yourself or, God forbid, publically criticising an opponent, was considered uncouth and socially unacceptable. The likes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln barely lifted a finger in their own election campaigns for the Presidency.
As Mitt shows all too clearly, that time period is long gone. Today’s Presidential campaigns, from pre-primary debates to election day, are dominated entirely by the actions and words of the candidates themselves, who become some of the most filmed people on the planet, every utterance, facial expression and past speech subject to the most intense and unrelenting scrutiny. This now includes having cameras following the candidates everywhere, for an inevitable post-campaign documentary. The War Room, Journey’s With George, Winning New Hampshire, …So Goes The Nation, By The People and even the semi-fictional Game Change are all different examples from Presidential campaigns since 1992, showcasing the key moments of those campaigns and usually offering the subject something of a last word on their activities.
And so comes Mitt, a 90 minute or so look at two separate political campaigns undertaken by Republican Mitt Romney. The former governor of Massachusetts ran for the Presidency of the United States twice: once in 2008, when he was one of the main challengers of John McCain in the Republican primaries, and then again in 2012, when he attained the nomination to face President Barack Obama. Greg Whiteley, given a surprising amount of access into some very personal moments, follows Romney through this time period, giving the viewer an insight into his private life, the effect that his family had over him throughout both campaigns and a glimpse into how electioneering is really carried out in modern America.
In-depth discussion of the film, with spoilers (such as they are), from here on. For my shorter, spoiler-free review, click here to go to The Write Club.
There are two kinds of documentary in my view: ones meant to inform you about something you probably don’t know anything about and those that are supposed to offer a fresh or interesting perspective on something you probably already do know about. The kinds of productions that Mitt belongs to have to tread a fine line really, all too often turning into a lionisation of the main subject without ever really making much of a key point, which is vital for a successful documentary of this type. I feel that Whiteley has mostly avoided that, and has come up with something that can fascinate anyone on either side of the political divide. You get so used to the public persona that is Mitt Romney that seeing him off stage is bound to give you a different appraisal of the man, as will his interactions with various family members.
You certainly won’t be used to seeing Mitt Romney joking around before debates, dropping quotes from Coen Brothers films to lighten the mood while his family and advisors squirm with nervousness around him. You won’t be used to a man who seems to privately crumple under repeated insults regards his religion and his “flip-flopping” tag, irritated that he cannot fight back against it in the way that he would like to. You won’t be used to a man who seems to deflect tension regards the campaign by cleaning up the various hotel rooms and apartments he has to stay at, like he’s just at home on a Sunday afternoon with his grandkids, who occasionally inhabit the screen. One of them, very young, appears on election night, calmly informing her grandfather that he’s losing a key state, seemingly uncomprehending of what is going on around her. Romney jokingly encourages her to keep him informed, even while the girl’s father quietens her. It’s a typical moment in the Romney family from what we see in Mitt, whose opening scene is that election night. Romney sighs as it becomes painfully clear what way the vote is going, and calmly asks how his concession speech should sound while his family sit silent beside him.
From there, it’s a cut to the campaign of four years earlier, one of slightly more bitter memories for the Romney’s. This first half of Mitt takes the form of repeated grievances suffered by them and their father at the hands of various sources, seen in as up close and personal a manner as possible. Romney argues with debate moderators who seem to be encouraging spats. He despairs over casual insults slung his way. He rankles when key people endorse other people, most notably the then Florida governor Crist, whose endorsement of McCain, after a former promise to stay neutral, was crucial in the Senator’s breakaway from the pack. He glows when he wins the odd primary but crumples when defeat becomes inevitable.
Whiteley’s camera takes us through all that, with the director happy to showcase several ordinary people who have no idea who Mitt Romney even is, and plenty of shots of the candidate himself away from the public eye. The obligatory look at his hair getting done, one of the key recurring symbols of the political facade (remember Paul Wolfowitz combing his hair in the opening of Fahrenheit 9/11?), is also included early on.
These brief moments of almost levity hide the darker, more painful issues. It all gets too much for the Romney family, whose support for their fathers bid, given nearly unanimously early on, falters under the relentless pressure. When defeat comes, in a campaign marred by dirty dealings, there is a sense of relief instead of shame. The Romney family loses happy at this stage, going home when the primary’s are over with their heads held high and seemingly unwilling to give it another go. Between open declarations by some of the Romney sons, which could be dismissed as post-loss bluster and the body language of others, most notably Romney’s wife Ann, who seems exhausted by the losing effort, they seem happy that it is all over.
Whiteley does his project a good service by showing us this. The Romney’s reaction to defeat is not a very American thing, in a country where people are supposed to go down fighting, and if defeated get set to rise back up as soon as possible. There’s supposed to be “fight”. But in a world like American politics, where “fight” is something that is perceived as real more than it actually is real, the Romney’s have no fight left by the time McCain has wrapped up the nomination. When we talk about “humanising” people like Mitt Romney, this kind of thing is critical. Sometimes, even these political giants just want to give up and go home.
Throughout all of this, there is very little talk of actual politics, something which holds true for the rest of Mitt too. The documentary is about, nominally, the harsh effect that electioneering can have on a family, and positions and issues aren’t a real part of that. Politics actually plays such little part in Mitt that you’re able to see Mitt Romney for who he is off the stage in a more complete way. Only on a few occasions do the tenets of the Republican party get spoken about, and that’s only in response to things like the infamous “47%” speech getting leaked, where Romney, sounding like he is just trying to defend himself, waxes lyrically on the virtues of low taxation and the perils that small business owners are facing. The family nod along, but you get a very real sense that they’re just letting him blow off steam or exult in a victory like that in the first Presidential debate – no one really challenges his opinions at any point in these sections, and his callous disregard towards that 47% does not get acknowledged. In a similar political sense, the VP Paul Ryan only emerges near the conclusion, and the two men are hardly as friendly off-stage as they appear to be when the cameras roll: there is a certain stiffness in the way that they speak to each other, an unspoken aspect of how they are two very different people in both age and outlook. Ryan’s not important to the story of Mitt, anymore than politics really is.
When the 2008 primaries end, a quick cut fast forwards us to 2012. The primary season of that year is given only a brief montage, lest we find ourselves bogged down by the sheer insanity of some of it: thankfully Whiteley decides to forgo the likes of Michelle Bachman, Rick Santorum and Herman Cain. We’ve seen the perils of primary season (which, in my opinion, is the single most ridiculous aspect of the American political system), now it’s on to the main show.
This takes the form of a series of ups and downs, with some closer moment’s in-between. Romney struggles heading into the first debate, distracting himself beforehand by cleaning up his hotel room, but proceeds to destroy his opponent (at least in the eyes of most. I never thought the result that night was as one-sided as was commonly perceived, but I digress). Seeing the Romney family unabashedly happy is almost unique within Mitt, and it’s here that the closeness between them all becomes obvious. They huddle together, though exhausted, to recall every other moment and to glory in the fact that their no-hoper campaign suddenly has legs. Romney takes the time to discuss the inspiration that his father was, the kind of connection that was little talked about during the campaign proper. Whiteley shows us a team that is starting to believe that it can win and already looking for the people to thank.
Things come crashing down again though. There is a constant level of dirty-dealing of course – any reference, however subtle, to the existence of Ann Romney’s Multiple Sclerosis gets the family very upset, most notably when Romney’s sons breath fire on a John Kerry comment about their fathers private elevator at a former workspace: a fact made as a critique and an insult, but which the sons want to reply to by stating it existed so their mother could be spared the stairs. The elder Romney wisely stays silent and lets them rant, but does not take up their suggestion. The relationship between husband and wife is not shown as amazingly close in Mitt, but there is affection there, a quiet, resolved one. Mitt Romney does not want to get drawn into a discussion on his wife’s illness. He’s a better man for it.
In the second debate, Romney errs with his “act of terror” mistake. He’s mortified and angry in the aftermath, blaming the moderator to cover up his own blunder. His sons make the right call though, when they say the debate will be called a win by both sides, something that is true for nearly every political debate in my opinion. There are highs and lows in this campaign, and Whiteley’s access allows us to see them in the right measure. This was a good example of a low, one made worse by the apparent high beforehand: Romney seems temporarily frustrated that his momentum has been halted, and all because of a disagreement about exact terminology.
Rather than continue into the last debate, the right decision is taken to move on. Whiteley spends a while showing the final days of the campaign – speeches, crowd waving and baby-kissing – as if to make the point that Romney is/was a loved man by the political masses that rallied to the Republican banner in 2012. It’s probably all just precursor to Election Night, to explain the severe disappointment felt by everybody in the room, including Mitt Romney. If you are a devout follower of Nate Silver, like I became in 2012, you never had the slightest doubt by Election Day how the vote was going to end up. The Romney family and their team were not so prescient, putting their faith in several unlikely scenarios, not least the possibility that Pennsylvania would go their way, which it certainly did not. The defeat comes, but not until Whiteley makes sure we realise just how close the Romney family thought that they were to the White House.
Instead of a political behemoth, the impression you take away of Mitt Romney at this point is of a classic patriarch: A man who feels like he has the experience and authority to be in charge of the nation, but still carries an inherent responsibility to be the leader of his family. It’s most obvious in those opening and final scenes, as the results of Election 2012 come in. Romney offers smiles and self-deprecating humour to try and raise the spirits of his family, who look far more depressed than he does. His sons point out the misinformed thought that he’ll win the popular vote but lose the election, and Romney smartly tells them solid blue California is yet to be counted, unwilling to tolerate their delusion or lame attempts at comfort. He gets on with the business of writing a concession speech as a task that has to be done – perhaps like cleaning up rubbish from the same room a few moments earlier – trying to put on the right face for his devastated family and advisors.
I say “advisors” there, because if there is one key fault in Whiteley’s approach it is that not enough is done to show the Romney team at its realistic reality, which would have included plenty of non-family members. I’ve read that the director had problems getting access to such people, leading to Mitt having a bit of a skewed focus, making it look like the Romney family ran the entire campaign themselves. It’s a deficiency, but not a fatal one. The campaign manager turns up on screen at this point, filling in the Mitt Romney picture.
And that picture is of a very proud man. Repeatedly hurt by the dirty tactics of the 2008 primaries, the way that media sources are intent on encouraging nasty discourse, beaming over his magnificent display in the first Presidential debate and personally mortified by the his infamous slip-up in the second, it was a “scene” late on that most struck me. As it becomes clear that Romney is the loser, his Secret Service detail outlines plans for the drawdown of his protection, which will take place over a few days. Romney cuts them off, wanting them gone as soon as possible, claiming that he “would look ridiculous” if driven around just one more mile by such an organisation following his defeat. He might not get to be President, but he still has his self-respect, and that was a powerful moment for me. Ironically, the main focus never looks better in our eyes – as a man, not as a politician – than at this low ebb.
The campaign over, Romney gives his staff, and the American public, a few last goodbyes and heads home. The last shot is of him simply sitting in a chair at home with his wife, staring reflectively out a window. The sense is, as in 2008, one of relief, of a burden laid down at last and a greater happiness for it. Even if defeat is the final outcome, there is a joy to be found in it.
The main theme running throughout Mitt would seem to be one of family. The Romney family, especially Ann and the elder sons are as important a subject as the nominee in Mitt, and Whiteley makes sure that they get as much time as possible to enunciate their opinions and fears about the campaign. Most notable is Tagg Romney’s open declaration that he is often saying one thing and thinking another when asked questions by the media, most especially on the topic of “Is it worth it?” There is a very real pain evident in the family of Mitt Romney as they see their father repeatedly insulted, torn down and denigrated, more so in 2008 than in 2012, and by the end it very much appears as if it was not worth it at all, at least on a family level, which goes some way to explaining the families devastation in 2012.
Of course, there is always the worry that elements of such a documentary have been staged or are, at least, not quite as honest as depicted. There are certainly times when you feel Romney might be playing for the camera a little bit, not least the very final shot which seems as staged as they come in these kind of productions. But ultimately I think that this is a mostly truthful look at the Romney clan at a very difficult time of their lives. Certainly there are moments when Mitt Romney might have an eye on posterity and his image, but I did not feel lied to in the projection put out by Mitt.
So what is the point of Mitt? It might be, perhaps, about politics, especially American politics, as a manic and destructive environment for anyone, and Mitt makes clear that the outward facade of smiling faces, rhetoric about the joys of democracy and perfectly styled hair is only so much bluster and falsehoods when you look even a little closer. But, as many have been quick to say, it is also about humanising Mitt Romney, to give a wide audience a look at who he actually is. This was a man who put on a mask for the political scene but was someone a bit different when the mask came off. He is probably typical of many American politicians. That’s worth seeing, in a world where partisan divides might never have been deeper, or at least seem so to a simple observer. Humanising such people, in this manner, could be conducive to a better political process. Little steps I suppose. As a brief aside, the Republican Party is taking steps to downsize their primary season to try and limit its candidate weakening nature, something the Democrats will likely have to copy. It is things like Mitt and the story that it tells that are part of the reasoning, surely.
The timing of this documentary, only a short while before the pre-primary posturing for nominations in America begins anew, cannot be ignored. Whether the rumours that Romney himself is considering having another crack are true or not, Mitt shows clearly how difficult such an attempt can be and how unworthy standard narratives and portrayals of candidates actually are. If what it shows holds true, the Romney family can hardly be looking forward to such a reality, and might be happier with a view into their lives that unmuddies some of the waters and allows them the visual opportunity of a last word. Mitt shows a deeper reality that should be more front and centre, if electorates would only insist upon it, an image of reality amid an ocean of deceits and electioneering mirages. For that, it’s worth watching. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).