Director Greg Whiteley’s new documentary, Mitt, offers a timid behind-the-scenes look at the Romney family during their two presidential campaigns.
Throughout the 2008 Republican primaries and the 2012 Presidential election, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney remained an impenetrable enigma. His personal life was scrutinized by the press, but the man himself was unwilling to talk much about his family or faith. It can be argued that both facets have little or nothing to do with the job of running the United States of America, but politics is a game and in order to play it well all the cards have to be on the table. Perceived secrets do not make friends, and though Romney was a considerable political force with high-level experience, his outsider relationship with the public may have been his downfall. The Democratic Party painted him as a grossly rich and shrewd business man with no empathy for everyday Americans. The press ran with this and once Romney’s notorious “47 percent” comment became national news, the results of the election were all but decided. Though initial rumblings indicated a close race, President Barack Obama easily won re-election claiming 332 electoral votes and 51 percent of the popular vote versus Romney’s 206 electoral votes and (ironically enough) 47 percent of the popular vote.
The new Netflix documentary, Mitt, attempts to pierce through the cloak of privacy surrounding him and his family and offer insights into his two unsuccessful Presidential campaigns. What a treat that Director Greg Whiteley had six years’ worth of unfettered access to the Romney family and hundreds of hours of footage to comb through in order to offer up an intriguing exposé. Unfortunately, Mitt is a meandering documentary with no clear focus. It offers up little information about the political process and though it depicts a rosy portrait of the Romney family, you come out knowing little more about them than you did during the election. The film is a frustrating missed opportunity.
Mitt starts off right where Romney’s presidential hopes came to a close – the moment he lost Ohio, a key battleground state. There isn’t melancholy here, but rather a sense of the inevitable as Romney asks his family, “What do you put into a concession speech?” To start at the end is a smart move on the filmmaker’s part as we already know the Republican Candidate’s fate, but to see a truthful telling of how he got there is a different story. The film then jumps back in time to the 2008 primaries and we see a scene of hope and opportunity as Romney joyfully plays with his sons in the snow. Mitt spends its first thirty minutes focusing on this primary period with his family bluntly stating that they could never put themselves through the ordeal again. Isn’t that every politician’s story? Romney’s sons (a few of which would work on the campaign) are paraded in front of the camera and they give moving vague testimony as to why their father would be a great President. It mostly comes down to “he’s a great, good man” and “he can steer this country back in the right direction”. Romney’s wife, Ann, offers many of the same statements, but it’s clear that they believe in what they preach even if the details of “why” are scarce.
By the time the film jumps to the 2012 election period there have been plenty of family meetings displayed weighing the pros and cons of the process and the growing frustrations of the political climate. But Romney himself never gives a one-on-one interview on his own feelings despite his family getting plenty of screen time. We do get to see him wrestling with his perceived image of being a “flip-flopper”, his mistrust of the media, and his disdain of the political game. The most appealing aspect of the documentary is that though Romney never gives a personal interview, he doesn’t hesitate to say exactly what the thinks when the cameras are rolling. There is a directness about him that is certainly a refreshing take when compared to his official news network appearances, and it is fascinating to watch him share his doubts and insecurities as a candidate so openly. He praises Obama’s debate skills and always underplays his own strengths. There is great humility in Romney and it shows a glimmer of what the documentary could have been had it been willing to engage with its subject.
Romney’s team is almost never shown on-camera, so unfortunately the audience misses out on the wealth of juicy material that was probably available in those meetings. It’s clear that the filmmakers wanted to focus solely on the experience of the family during this six-year time period and though the basics are hit upon, it’s all surface. Yes, there are plenty of moments where they share the fears they couldn’t possibly show the outside world, but what about how they function as a family? Better yet, what about some information on how they got to this place of privilege to begin with and what is it like to grow up Romney? The filmmakers never bother to ask those questions. With the director being a fellow Mormon, it would have been interesting to see Whiteley probe into their mutual faith and dispel some of the falsehoods and misconceptions that the general public has of the oft-criticized religion. Getting Romney (or his family) on camera talking directly about their faith and how it influences their everyday life would have been quite revealing, but Whiteley is content to play it safe and the documentary suffers for it.
Mitt is a well-meaning project and if the filmmakers decide to go back through their wealth of footage it’s probable that an entirely different film could be made. As it is, the one presented is lackluster, unfocused, and worst of all – boring. The American political process is an alluring beast and with so much open access to the Romney family the absence of true substance here is unforgivable. Mitt isn’t a probing exposé or a puff piece. Instead, it sits somewhere in the middle waiting desperately for its director to define its intention.