I don’t like Mitt Romney. At least, I thought I didn’t. I didn’t vote for him, nor did I try to conceal my relief when his opponent, President Barack Obama, won the 2012 election. Nevertheless, when I heard that Mitt, a new made-for-Netflix documentary, was coming out, I was very curious. Losing presidential candidates have always been fascinating to me, and I think accounts of doomed campaigns are often more interesting than analyses of successful ones. Thus, despite my personal feelings about the man I derisively called “Mutt” or “Mittens” or his given name Willard, I willingly signed up to spend 93 minutes with him and his family, through the lens of filmmaker Greg Whiteley’s new documentary.
Politics aside, I found Mitt an endearing and even charming film. It’s done in a very straightforward fashion: Whiteley and his crew essentially followed Mitt and his family around for nearly six years, beginning with Romney’s decision in 2006 to seek the Republican nomination for 2008 and finally culminating in election night 2012. Indeed the film begins on election night, then backtracks and circles back around at the end. In addition to Romney himself we see a lot of his wife Ann, and lots and lots of his kids, particularly his sons, who I think are named Tagg, Trace, Trigg, Flagg, Fogg, and Ragg, or something like that. It doesn’t matter. What we see is less a presidential campaign by one politician and more of the exercise of politics as sort of a family business, of which Mitt is naturally the CEO.
What amazed me about the movie was that I actually started to like Mitt. Painted by his opponents as a hopelessly out-of-touch plutocrat, cravenly beholden to corporate interests and tone-deaf to the concerns of real Americans, Mitt Romney in 2012 gave off the impression that he was little more than a well-tailored robot, the Mr. Data of politics. Mitt doesn’t exactly shatter that impression, but more accurately shunts it aside. When not on the campaign trail, Romney seems like a real human being. He tells jokes. He fawns over his grandkids, which are adorable. He agonizes over past mistakes both in business and politics. He approaches the political process, especially the infamous Republican party “clown car” primaries, with a dash of cynicism that actually seems to connect with what most of us hoi polloi think about politics. Although Mitt obviously wants to be President, it doesn’t seem like he wants the job for its own sake. He really does believe in something, however much I may disagree with what that something is. I never saw this on the campaign trail.
All polls aside, Mitt Romney had virtually no chance of winning the 2012 election. Very few of the historical factors necessary to turn an incumbent President out of office were in his favor.
Two scenes in Mitt stuck out to me as particularly humanizing. One, which I believe occurs on the day of one of the debates, shows Mitt and his family, including grandkids, in a hotel suite with a balcony. The wind is blowing outside and Mitt realizes that some of the family’s trash (I think they ate lunch outside on the balcony; the litter includes napkins and paper plates) is starting to scatter. Exercising a bit of low-key alarm, Mitt slides open the balcony door and hurriedly tries to collect the litter before it flies away. A guy worth hundreds of millions of dollars, who in an hour is going toe-to-toe with the President of the United States, doesn’t need to clean up his own litter. But he reacts like any one of us would in that situation. That Whiteley included this, amidst the thousands of hours of film he must have shot, is telling.
The second scene is where Mitt is dressing in a tuxedo just before going to a banquet, where President Obama will also be present. Something’s wrong with the suit’s cuffs, and with no time to change, Mitt grabs a travel iron and tries to flatten the cuffs while still in them. “Ow! Ow!” he says, with sort of a half-smile as the steam hisses out of the iron on his hands. Again, a simple gesture, but a very humanizing one.
So this begs the question: where was this Mitt Romney in 2012? I’m not saying that an unvarnished look at the family man, the harried traveler, the real-life day-to-day Mitt would have changed my vote, but it certainly would have broadened my understanding of him. Yes, this is still the same person who cheerfully said, “Corporations are people, my friends!” and callously wrote off 47% of the American public as worthless moochers in that infamous viral video. But the movie Mitt doesn’t dwell on that narrative, choosing instead to show us the personality behind those political positions. In doing so I think the film exposes the flaws in our political system. A candidate isn’t allowed to be human. He or she must be superhuman, never guilty of hypocrisy or anger, never showing the flaws that all of us possess. Exposure of those flaws is usually politically disastrous. That’s a shame.
The most poignant scene in Mitt, I think, is the final one. Mitt and Ann Romney return to their house–I assume it’s in or around Boston somewhere–after the election. There are no Secret Service agents, no political handlers, no kids. Just the two of them walking into the house, wearily dragging suitcases and garment bags. Mitt opens the drapes, sighs and heaves himself into a chair. You’re left thinking: how strange a moment would that be, returning home after just being defeated for President of the United States? Through all your disappointment, perhaps anger, perhaps bewilderment–I doubt to this day that Mitt has any real understanding of why he lost–there must also be great relief, and even happiness. The bittersweet quality of that moment comes out perfectly.
If you have Netflix streaming, I highly recommend Mitt. You may still not want to vote for him, but you may understand him a bit better.