In one of Mitt’s early scenes, a producer asks Josh Romney if the hard work of his father’s presidential campaign is “worth it.” Josh hesitates. There’s a media-trained answer to that question, he says, and an honest answer. The politically correct line is that he’s inspired by his father’s vision for the country, so much so that any amount of work is worthwhile in the end. The reality is that he finds the process “awful”—exhausting, unfair, and ugly. “This is why you don’t get good people running for president,” he says, presumably excepting his dad. This second, “authentic” answer is as banal as the first—everybody knows that presidential campaigns are grueling—it just has the benefit of being the truth. This is not as much of a benefit as the makers of Mitt might like it to be.
Mitt’s whole reason for being is to penetrate the enigma of Mitt Romney—a presidential candidate whose true nature always seemed to be repressed beneath layers of political calculation, media training, and Mormon politesse. “Whatever side you’re on, see another side,” says the tagline for this Netflix-exclusive documentary. And while Mitt fulfills the letter of that promise, the film’s “other side” doesn’t offer much of a new perspective on the man. The depictions of Romney and his clan are honest and intimate, sure, but honesty and intimacy don’t necessarily produce insight, and Mitt’s mistake is to assume that they do.
The film chronicles Romney’s two presidential campaigns, with the 2012 run forming the bulk of its 92 minutes. Although it’s shot using a rough, unadorned style that hearkens to The War Room—the classic inside-baseball account of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign—this is not a film for political junkies. Indeed, Mitt’s shaky vérité style is an odd fit for its material, which mostly depicts the candidate and his family chatting in hotel rooms, backstage holding areas, and other in-between spaces. Whenever the Romneys gather, they’re united in hope that the nation will soon see Mitt the way they do—as a strong-hearted visionary who can solve America’s woes. It’s a story about waiting for a moment that never comes.
The Romneys’ support for their patriarch is unflinching and unalloyed. “If you don’t win, we’ll still love you,” Tagg Romney tells his father at a family meeting before the 2008 campaign. Tagg’s sentiment doesn’t come into doubt even once. The family members are never shown arguing over any substantial points of strategy. Tempers never flare. Rifts fail to develop. The Romneys are the family that Mitt needs them to be, just not the family that Mitt needs them to be. Their bedrock of encouragement produces a flat story, as the Romneys undergo no apparent change. Given the punishing nature of a national campaign, that steadiness is remarkable in itself, a testament to the family’s strength and closeness. It just doesn’t make for a terribly vibrant 90 minutes.
Barack Obama’s camp decided early on in the 2012 race to paint Romney as a hard-right plutocrat whose life in the executive suite left him out of touch with normal Americans. Romney’s propensity for gaffes—his declaration that “corporations are people,” the $10,000 wager he made during a primary debate, the 47 percent debacle—solidified this narrative. Mitt makes a concerted effort to push back against that Richie Rich image. The counter-messaging doesn’t always work: When Romney picks up some stray garbage in his hotel room, for instance, the “he’s a regular guy just like us!” overtones are too clumsy to take hold.
But sometimes, the caricature falls away, and in these too-rare moments, Mitt briefly justifies its existence. Winding down after a debate against Obama, Romney displays his notes and explains that he always writes “DAD” at the top of the page. “He was the real deal,” Romney says of his father, George. Romney’s brother pipes up with a cry of “You’re the real deal!” but Romney waves him off with a clipped “no”—he doesn’t want to hear the rah-rah stuff right now. “The guy was born in Mexico,” Romney says. “He didn’t have a college degree. He became head of a car company and became a governor. I started where he ended up. I started off with money and education and Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School.”
It’s a version of Romney that the Obama narrative couldn’t account for: a man who is not only aware of his privilege but also is determined to make it mean something. As Mitt eulogizes George, he stands on the precipice of doing something that the father could not—completing a successful run for president—and the implication is that perhaps with this success, Mitt could finally become the “real deal.”
The trouble for Romney was that in the meantime, he had to be something less than real. One scene from the 2008 campaign shows Romney musing about the word “change.” He thinks it’s an empty buzzword, and it clearly doesn’t resonate with him. But his advisors (who appear only briefly in this film) have told him that “change” is a winner. So he uses it. This was the other prevailing narrative about Romney—that he was a slave to political expediency—and Mitt makes little effort to dispel that myth. Romney works the word “change” into his stump speech. He weaves it into his very identity, telling voters that he’s the “candidate of change.” And he loses.
To its credit, Mitt avoids making the trite argument that if only Romney had showed us the real side of himself, his campaigns might have come out differently. Instead, Mitt gives the impression that Mitt Romney is not much more complex than he seemed to be. Because a presidential campaign is the United States’ grandest political platform, it’s assumed that the people who occupy it are grand, too. The conception of the characters is expanded to fit the stage.
But there’s no reason that conception has to be true. Maybe the Romney persona just doesn’t possess layers of fascination that were hidden in 2008 and 2012. Maybe he’s simply an intelligent, poised, somewhat boring businessman who ended up as the Republican nominee by accidents of circumstance. If so, then Mitt is the quintessential Mitt Romney movie, a cardboard film for the cardboard candidate.
Directed by: Greg Whiteley
Debuts: Friday on Netflix
Format: Documentary film