February 7, 2014

Mitt: Humanizing a Candidate

Mitt Romney in Mitt.

The Republican Party has struggled in recent years with the perception (fair or not) of it being a group of rich white guys who don’t understand what it’s like to not have money. If they were looking for a candidate to change that view in 2012, they made a poor choice with Mitt Romney. The wealthy business man and former governor of Massachusetts did little during the campaign to avoid that stigma. Is there more behind the slick hair and dapper suits? I’m definitely on the liberal end of the spectrum, but I realize that any serious candidate has more to say than clever catch phrases. Romney’s record prior to running for president was pretty moderate and included major healthcare reform as governor. What happened to that guy? Greg Whitely’s Mitt doesn’t answer that question, but it does give a behind-the-scenes look at Romney and the challenges of a campaign.

Premiering at Sundance in January and now available on Netflix, this documentary provides a glimpse at the pressures of trying to win the nation’s highest office. Romney’s family loves him but doesn’t want him to run, especially after his failed attempt in 2008. We spend a lot of time with his sons, who experience the stress firsthand during the chaos. His wife Anne stands by her husband right to the end, but there’s a sense that she’ll be okay if he just retreats from the public sphere. Whitely succeeds at humanizing a guy who comes off a lot colder in public. We see Romney horsing around with the family in the snow, picking up trash off a hotel balcony, and just enjoying the quiet times. They savor every victory and sit mournfully after his low points. It’s that rare perspective that drives this film.

Mitt Romney on the campaign trail in Mitt.

The challenge with Mitt is the limited perspective on Romney as a candidate. We get quick footage of the aftermath of the 47% debacle, but there’s no input on what really happened. There’s a conversation with Romney deriding the lack of understanding small business owners by his opponent, yet it’s hardly revelatory. Despite having close access, Whitely gets few moments to capture Romney’s internal thoughts beyond what he tells his family. Instead, we’re left to read facial expressions following major events. After the second debate with the “act of terror” issues, he sits quietly and has the look of a guy marching to a funeral. While pushing back against the idea that he made a mistake, Romney’s eyes say it all. He tries to put on a strong fa├žade, but there’s clear doubt in his mind.

It’s fascinating to watch the progression of the 2012 Election Day as the bad news starts arriving. Romney and running mate Paul Ryan expect to win and have a rousing final campaign stop. When the expected results don’t happen, his core team keeps trying to spin them positively. It’s this up-close view that makes Whitely’s documentary worth seeing. I don’t agree with Romney’s views on many issues, but it’s clear that he believed that he could make a difference. It may surprise you to see Romney laughing to David Sedaris on This American Life or quoting from O Brother, Where Art Thou? with Anne. He’s clearly an intelligent guy with nuanced views on politics. The problem is that he wasn’t able to communicate that side to the public. It’s all about quick impressions, and he couldn’t shake the image of being an out-of-touch guy willing to change his views to get elected.

Mitt and Anne Romney in Mitt.

Beyond its limited take on Romney’s candidacy, Mitt shows the impossibility of maintaining a normal life while running for president. The Internet and 24-hour news networks have changed the game and made it even more intrusive. When Romney sits down with his family to weigh the pros and cons of running, no one rushes to give any positives. They recognize the nasty side of politics that’s only been heightened in our modern age. A person would have to be pretty crazy to even try this venture. Given this fact, Romney seems pretty balanced and genial. While nothing we see changes my thoughts about his candidacy, it does soften them on the personal side. This may frustrate viewers hoping for more depth, and that reaction is understandable. Even so, there’s enough interesting material to make this movie worthwhile for anyone interested in the political process.

8 comments:

  1. Keep an eye out for a documentary called CAUCUS by AJ Schnack. It gives a similar glimpse behind the scenes of the crazy run-up to the 2012 election.

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    1. Sounds intriguing; I hadn't heard of it. It's been added to the ever-growing watch list. Thanks Ryan!

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  2. Nice review. I have this one marked to watch. The entire "rich white guy" characterization always tickled me and it was amazing that people would fall for that silliness. I'm pretty sure their are extremely wealthy people from both parties. The Clintons, Kerry, etc. In fact 7 of the top 10 wealthiest members of Congress are Democrats!

    I think that's an example of why I dislike politics so much (even though I follow it closely).

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    1. Keith, I wouldn't call myself an expert on politics, but I can see your point. I'm definitely on the far liberal side yet won't deny that it's a lot more complicated than "rich vs. poor" with the two parties. I still disagree with nearly all of Romney's policies, but I can at least understand his life behind the scenes after seeing this film.

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    2. I really do think it humanizes him beyond the labels and caricatures. I have a few issues with some of his positions as well but I really do think he is a decent guy.

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    3. No arguments here. From what we see on the documentary, he seems to be involved for the right reasons, if I don't agree with his solutions.

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  3. Have not seen that as I pretty much am not up to speed on American politics and therefore thought I'd skip it. Do you think it would be interesting for me to see as a non-American?

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    1. I don't think it's a necessity to know American politics, but that does help a lot. Understanding the perception of Mitt Romney during the 2012 election is a big part of what drove this movie. I think it would still be interesting, but it's hard to be sure.

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