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

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.

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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.

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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.