What would compel a person to run for president of the United States? That is one of the driving themes of “Mitt,” a new documentary that debuted at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday night and will become available for streaming on Netflix starting Jan. 24.
The title tells you a lot. Simple and personal, director Greg Whiteley’s documentary is an attempt to reveal the human side of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who twice campaigned for the U.S. presidency, ultimately losing to incumbent President Barack Obama in November 2012. Whiteley and his camera played fly-on-the-wall throughout both campaigns, and the resulting documentary should prove compelling to viewers on both sides of the political aisle.
The documentary opens with a scene featured in its highly publicized trailer: Romney is surrounded by family and advisers on election night 2012 at the moment he learns he has lost the presidency. Trying to put on a good face, Romney asks if anyone has the president’s phone number and wonders aloud what you’re supposed to say in a concession speech.
From there, “Mitt” lurches back to 2006, when Romney gathered his family to decide whether to run for president the first time around. In these early scenes, we meet a fascinating character: Romney the reluctant candidate. We see a man who is obviously successful, but hesitant to engage the path in front of him. He asks his children and their spouses for their advice, and his son Tagg offers the most compelling argument in favor of a candidacy: He has a duty to try.
At this point, “Mitt” plays out chronologically, tracing through the events of both campaigns. While the bulk of the documentary is focused on his 2012 campaign, a surprising amount of time is spent tracing the steps of Romney’s failed 2008 candidacy, where he lost the Republican nomination to Sen. John McCain. The camera takes us along the campaign trail as we watch Romney balance his public confidence against his private hesitations. We witness his personal frustrations in the aftermath of debate setbacks and distorted media reports, especially as he laments his label as a “Flipping Mormon” (an amusing double-entendre that represents the focus of his plight). Along the way, we also pick up a second possible answer to the question of his motivation: images from the 1968 presidential campaign of his father, George.
The opening scene and the trailer, which highlight some of the more humble and almost quirky moments of his campaigns, suggest that “Mitt” could be subtitled “Portrait of a Loser.” But the documentary, while direct and honest, paints a much more complete picture. If anything, a more appropriate subtitle would be “Portrait of a Family Man.”
Throughout “Mitt,” Romney is constantly surrounded by and interacting with his family, and the conviction and influence of his wife, Ann, is especially apparent. The family is shown praying together on multiple occasions (though specifics of his Mormon background are largely absent), and at times you wonder if Romney has any political advisers at all. Candid interviews with Romney’s son Josh reveal just how integrated the family is in the ordeal, as he admits to his struggle to balance an appropriate public face with the frustration he feels behind the scenes. Multiple family members acknowledge that an election loss would lead to an easier day-to-day life for everyone.
That isn’t to say “Mitt” doesn’t have a humorous side. Several subtle moments throughout the documentary inject humor by displaying the humanity of the situation. A cellphone goes off during a family prayer, and on the morning of an important debate, Romney scrambles around the deck of his hotel room cleaning up a mess left by an overnight windstorm.
The documentary's minimalist approach assumes a good deal of previous knowledge on the part of its audience. Whiteley provides no narrative overdub or present-day interviews to offer reflection or much context on the documented events. Less than 18 months removed from the election, this shouldn’t prove much of an obstacle for the audience, and the timing of “Mitt” is bound to enhance its impact and interpretation. Because Romney’s opponent is an embattled sitting president, it would be easy to see the documentary as a 90-minute “I told you so” from the Romney campaign. And for many middle-of-the-road voters, that could be the result.
But “Mitt” is not a campaign piece. Whiteley does a good job of letting the story tell itself, showing both the highs and lows but refusing to dwell too long on one issue or another, allowing the audience to draw its own conclusions.
Since we only see the perspective of one candidate, it’s easy to wonder what is going on behind closed doors with other hopefuls. As a result, “Mitt” may generate more sympathy for Romney’s character without necessarily prompting audience members to change their political positions.
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Regardless of how you feel about Mitt Romney or the outcome of the last presidential election, “Mitt” will make you wish we could get to know all our candidates in such a manner.
“Mitt” is not rated but, as it has no offensive content, will no doubt land in G- or PG-rated territory.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at woundedmosquito.com.