What’s Missing in ‘Mitt’

The forthcoming documentary about Romney’s two failed campaigns shows that candidates are, in fact, humans. Why that banal fact is compelling is a testament to how impersonal campaigns are.

National Journal
Brian Resnick
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Brian Resnick
Jan. 22, 2014, 12:05 a.m.

There’s a scene close to the be­gin­ning of Mitt, Net­flix’s forth­com­ing doc­u­ment­ary about the can­did­ate’s two failed shots at the White House, that serves two pur­poses. It sets up the theme of the 90-minute movie, and it provides an apt meta­phor for the Rom­ney cam­paign.

It’s 2007, and a Today Show light­ing de­sign­er is set­ting up the stage for Mitt Rom­ney’s first in­ter­view since an­noun­cing his can­did­acy. The tech­ni­cian ex­plains that there are two ways to light the set. One is the safe way, with bright lights, but those lights make the per­son look two-di­men­sion­al. The oth­er meth­od al­lows for more drama and shad­ows, but it’s ris­ki­er.

“We don’t want to of­fend any­body by show­ing off a flaw in the can­did­ate,” he says. “Be­cause im­plied in that is a mis­take. And that means this guy could make a mis­take when he’s pres­id­ent. And we can’t bear that idea. Of course he’s go­ing to make a mis­take when he’s pres­id­ent — he’s hu­man.”

What Amer­ica saw of Rom­ney dur­ing his 2012 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign were those bright, flat lights. This film is about his shad­ows.

* * *

Right be­fore the second pres­id­en­tial de­bate, Rom­ney and a few of his sons sit around a table, listen­ing to a 2002 This Amer­ic­an Life epis­ode fea­tur­ing Dav­id Sedar­is. Sedar­is is talk­ing about a cath­et­er for sports fans who would rather pee in place than leave their seats. The Rom­neys laugh hard at the line “pip­ing hot bag of ur­ine,” shak­ing off Rom­ney’s genu­ine nervous­ness.

This is an in­noc­u­ous scene, but if leaked dur­ing the cam­paign, it would have cer­tainly sparked In­ter­net chat­ter. There’s the Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ate for pres­id­ent re­lax­ing be­fore a de­bate with a Pub­lic Ra­dio In­ter­na­tion­al show, a lib­er­al staple, pun­dits would have jeered.

In­stead, the ef­fect is not so much a hu­man­iz­a­tion of the Rom­neys, but an ex­plan­a­tion of how strange daily life is on the cam­paign trail.

But in this movie, it just shows a hu­man laugh­ing at a piss joke — the most nor­mal of re­ac­tions. 

Film­maker Greg Whiteley fol­lowed the fam­ily for six years, to the re­por­ted dis­sat­is­fac­tion of the cam­paign, first in search of a story about Rom­ney’s Mor­mon­ism, then for a fo­cus on a fam­ily in the na­tion­al spot­light.

The hu­man­iz­ing de­tails Whiteley dis­cov­ers are really quite banal. Rom­ney cleans up trash in more than one scene. The Rom­neys hug — a lot. There are grandkids every­where. There are many wide-angle scenes with many Rom­neys in the frame dis­cuss­ing the events of the mo­ment. Ann comes across as the least-ro­bot­ic Rom­ney. She provides some pas­sion and en­thu­si­asm when her hus­band keeps it cool. She calms him down when he is nervous. And she does it all while deal­ing with mul­tiple scler­osis. When Rom­ney real­izes he has lost, he states it plain and sad. “Boy that’s bad, all those states right?” he says as the elec­tion map fills in.

The ef­fect is not so much a hu­man­iz­a­tion of the Rom­neys, but an ex­plan­a­tion of how strange life is on the cam­paign trail. The uni­verse of the cam­paign ad­heres to a frus­trat­ing lo­gic: Mitt Rom­ney can’t fig­ure out how to ex­plain to voters in 2008 that he’s not a “flip-flop­per” for chan­ging his mind on an is­sue. He walks the in­vis­ible line between ap­pear­ing firm but not angry dur­ing de­bates. In the meme-fueled banter of the last elec­tion, he had reas­on to be guarded. Any­thing out of con­text could spread like wild­fire. Who wouldn’t turn in­to an al­most ro­bot?

But the film fails at a crit­ic­al mo­ment of the cam­paign — Rom­ney’s damning “47 per­cent” com­ment. We’ll nev­er know if that com­ment was an “in the light” re­mark — a two-di­men­sion­al pro­jec­tion for a cer­tain audi­ence — or something more hon­est. Or maybe it falls some­where in between. Whiteley doesn’t ask any ques­tions about it, and he had little ac­cess to the in­ner work­ings of the cam­paign. “I just simply wasn’t there when the 47 per­cent was uttered,” Whiteley said on a re­cent press call. “Whatever dam­age con­trol or spin mode they were in I just didn’t have ac­cess to that. The cam­paign was re­luct­ant to have me film any of them.”

Over­all, he doesn’t ask many ques­tions.  He’s more of a fly on the wall. “I nev­er thought of my­self as a tra­di­tion­al journ­al­ist,” Whit­ley said. “Things went bet­ter when I kept my mouth shut.”

Mitt is not the typ­ic­al polit­ic­al tale; it’s no Game Change. His run­ning mate, Paul Ry­an, is just a ghost in the movie, ap­pear­ing briefly on Elec­tion Day. In­stead, the film is a story of the per­son who be­comes a “loser for life,” as Rom­ney says it. That is, those who lose pres­id­en­tial elec­tions get lost to his­tory.

Los­ing is very much on Rom­ney’s mind throughout the cam­paigns, even though he didn’t pre­pare a con­ces­sion speech in 2012. Rom­ney and his fam­ily spend much time talk­ing about past “losers for life,” cit­ing the fail­ures of John Kerry, Al Gore, Mi­chael Duka­kis, and the like as the ex­amples of what not to do. “We don’t want you to look like a John Kerry” is a re­peated re­frain.

This doc­u­ment­ary alone, al­though it has garnered some crit­ic­al ac­claim, isn’t likely to save him from that for­got­ten fate.

* * *

There’s ob­vi­ously a dif­fer­ence between the can­did­ate that ap­pears in front of the bright lights — the pre­scrip­ted, fo­cus-group tested per­sona — and his more roun­ded edges that emerge when he speaks openly without fear of sound bites. That the sole thrust of this movie is to point that fact out is a test­a­ment to how im­per­son­al elec­tions really are.

I was hop­ing for the sub­jects of the movie to ex­plain this in­tern­al ten­sion between staged cam­paign life and can­did fam­ily life a bit more. But they don’t.

The closest they come is dur­ing a scene in which Whiteley asks Josh Rom­ney, Mitt’s third-eld­est, dur­ing the 2008 cam­paign, “Ever once have you thought this just isn’t worth it?”

Josh re­sponds, “You know, it’s hard for me to do these in­ter­views, be­cause I’m so used to do­ing in­ter­views with the me­dia where I’m so trained to say, ‘Oh, ab­so­lutely not.’ To ac­tu­ally speak my mind is very dif­fer­ent.”

Whiteley asks Josh to trans­late the an­swer from a canned re­sponse to what he really feels.

“This is aw­ful, that’s the trans­la­tion,” he sums up.

This post has been up­dated to in­clude com­ments the dir­ect­or made dur­ing a press call.

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