It's Sort of Working
Mitt Romney, Ann Romney, Josh Romney, Tagg Romney, Craig Romney, Jenn Romney
Netflix: 24 Jan 2014
“They put together a film that’s not political. It’s more personal, and family-oriented.”
Near the start of Mitt, Mitt Romney sits with his large family in a room that’s at once large and cozy, a fireplace providing warmth following a morning outside in the snow. He suggests they go “around the room,” everyone helping him to make a list of pros and cons, as he decides whether to run for the Republican nomination for president in 2006. While the camera cuts from face to face and a couple of sons discuss the pros-and-cons process, Jenn Romney, married to Mitt’s son Josh, speaks up: “I think the con would be you’d be the president.”
The rest of the family laughs, partly startled also partly understanding: the stress of a campaign would be one thing, but winning the race, that’s another story. “It would be hard on everybody,” Jenn goes on, “But it would be an amazing experience.” Craig Romney adds, “The thing that scares me most is you’ll come out and that message will be lost,” that the real Mitt Romney might seem too good to be true, just a façade. Still, he and the rest of his siblings believe the difficulties will be worthwhile. “I feel that if people really get to see who you are, you’ll be elected.”
In these couple of minutes, Greg Whitely’s documentary sets up its trajectory, following the Romneys as they undertake two runs for the nomination, and then, in 2012, a presidential campaign. Without look-back commentary or talking heads, the film offers an intriguing series of moments, backstage at debates or in hotel rooms or on campaign planes. These images conjure a sense of immediacy and even intimacy, as the Romneys appear convinced of their rightness, and so remain enduringly optimistic in a world that is fundamentally cynical.
On some level, of course, such cynicism can be energizing and exciting, as revealed in so many behind the scenes campaign portraits, focused most often on managers, strategists, and handlers. Conversely, Mitt—available on Netflix as of 24 January—focuses on the Romneys as a family, in particular the relationship between Ann and her husband, a focus resulting from their decision to grant Whiteley unusual access. Their work is variously difficult, sometimes surprising and too often predictable, as the campaigns produce doubts and frustrations: following one vaguely contentious discussion of how a debate will be organized, Romney rides away in his car, wondering, “How the hell do we find these things out the day of the debate?” The debate that comes after features the sort of “scrum” Romney had envisaged (and which the organizer insisted would not be allowed), specifically, sniping from John McCain concerning Mitt’s character, and especially, his self-representation as a candidate who might bring “change.” As McCain takes aim, the camera shows Romney’s face looking composed and strained, even as you know this is the end of this campaign for him.
While the film shows the ends of more than one campaign, it also shows how the Romneys support one another, share jokes and sensibilities, pray together and reinforce one another’s perspectives. And if it’s not surprising that they don’t show much interest in other views, it is frankly fascinating to observe parts of their process, however selective these parts may be. Sometimes, you guess that you’re missing some discussions, for whatever reasons. After the film shows a bit of the 47% video and a few TV reports sensationally speculating on its effect, it offers an even briefer look at Romney’s efforts to explain the comment (“Now and then things don’t come out exactly the way you meant them”) and then cuts to the next turn in the 2012 campaign, the first debate with Barack Obama. To this day, of course, Romney asserts the comment was only misunderstood, and not misconceived. If only the real Mitt might be revealed, he and his family say more than once, he would win hearts and minds as well as votes, and so, the Romneys’ beliefs would be confirmed.
That’s not to say they seek outside confirmation, so strong is their faith—religious and otherwise. The film offers a version of the real Mitt, performative and authentic, charming and awkward, occasionally at the same time. In a couple of scenes, Mitt takes it on himself to pick up trash in his hotel rooms, an activity that suggests some ideas about his general sensibility (neat, orderly) as well as his humility. For all the money and power he’s wielded for so long, he’s a great dad and grandfather, a loving husband, and he might even be thoughtful when it comes to hotel staff. If its version of the real Mitt is very nice, very earnest, and appealingly humble, the film doesn’t insist so much as it observes and selects.
In most cases, these selections show what you expect. Tagg and Josh, along with their mom, encourage Mitt before the first debate with Obama in 2012. While Romney bends over his noodles in a Styrofoam container, she tells him to make clear “the conviction in your heart, why you’re running.” A moment later, Tagg admits his own nervousness because, he notes, “Obama is a great speaker.” Dad worries for a moment that when he’s “intense, it looks like I’m angry, or mad. My eyes are in caves anyway.” Mitt’s self-awareness here and elsewhere is kind of irresistible. Mitt offers a brief reminder of that first debate, but focuses mostly on his son’s wide eyes as he watches TV, visibly thrilled by how well Mitt does. A few scenes later, you’re reminded more aggressively of the debate moderated by Candy Crowley, as the film includes the moment when Romney says Obama did not call the Benghazi attack a “terrorist act” in the Rose Garden. It’s a minor error on one level, a semantic game (“Please proceed, Governor,” says Obama, the TV camera close on his face), but the film also recalls how broadly it resonated in all kinds of media reports.
Such moments show what you remember and expect, and Mitt, even in the backstage aftermath doesn’t push beyond such expectation. Romney and his family understand the consequences here, Tagg and Josh sit on green room couches checking polls on their cell phones, while dad stands in the center of the room, lamenting, “I was like, ‘Okay, this is like the SAT when you don’t know the answer to three questions.’” He … your life is over.” It’s not, of course, though the end of the campaign is surely in sight. Still, the Romneys press on, their staunch belief in Republican polling a little painful to see again, especially on election day, when Paul Ryan shows up in the film for the first time, all enthusiastic certainty.
Before this, the many scenes framing Mitt with his wife, his beautiful grandchildren, his doting sons, have suggested an insular, supportive environment. Ryan’s appearance is jarring, a reminder that the outside world is more brutal than the one inhabited by the Romneys. When, after he’s lost the election, Romney thanks a group of staffers, he remembers an observation made by a friend, “That in some ways we kind of had to steal the nomination,” the Republican party being Southern, evangelical, and populist, but you’re Northern, you’re Mormon, and you’re rich. These do not match well with our party.” He laughs now, with Ann standing tearfully by his side, a moment that seems inevitable but also, in this world, a surprise. Here again, Mitt reveals the complexity and elusiveness of the real Mitt.
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