A determinedly apolitical movie that inevitably will be viewed in partisan terms, “Mitt” is a fascinating fly-on-the-wall portrait of family life on the U.S. presidential campaign trail. Covering Mitt Romney’s failed run for the Republican nomination in 2008 and failed run for the presidency four years later, Greg Whiteley’s film attempts to humanize a man who seemed almost robotic in opposition to a feistier John McCain and smoother Barack Obama. Very much focused on small moments, usually involving the large Romney clan, this is neither an indictment nor an endorsement but simply a refreshing departure from the combative tone of contemporary politics and political coverage. Netflix’s acquisition and subsequent marketing push likely guarantee a wider audience than most docs would expect in theaters.
Whiteley’s most significant achievement is one of access. He gets Romney; his wife, Ann, and their children (most prominently eldest son Tagg, youngest Craig and political heir apparent Josh) to open up and feel comfortable oncamera, capturing a series of intimate moments that are both revealing and utterly unassuming. Anyone looking for inside information on the campaign will be disappointed: There’s some talk of political strategy along the way, especially debate preparation during the primaries and the presidential race, but Whiteley is more interested in cutting through the image-making and branding of Romney the presidential hopeful to bring out the family man lurking within.
The knowledge that his dual bids ultimately ended in defeat colors the entire film, making it far less of a rah-rah Romney piece than might be expected. The film opens in November 2012, with Romney’s election-night realization that he’ll need to give a concession speech, before rewinding to six years earlier. An early clip during the run-up to the 2008 primary features Romney telling a fundraiser audience that failed presidential nominees are branded “a loser for life” and reassuring the crowd that he’s “going in with my eyes wide open.” As Tagg tells his dad during a family meeting: “If you don’t win, we’ll still love you, but the country may think of you as a laughingstock.” He quickly adds that it’s Romney’s duty to God to run for office, one of a handful of ways the film handles Romney’s Mormon faith without fuss.
While Romney’s religion is an organic part of the film, Whiteley basically dodges anything else that might have been controversial. The first half is so heavy on the 2008 primary that the 2012 primary season (including crazy characters like Michele Bachman, Herman Cain and Rick Perry) is dispensed with in a single montage. There’s no opportunity for Romney to reveal any thoughts or feelings about his opponents. Similarly swept under the rug are the selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate (Ryan isn’t even onscreen until election day), Clint Eastwood’s appearance at the Republican National Convention and — perhaps most disappointing of all — reactions to the infamous “47%” cameraphone video.
Pic’s first half is slightly more engaging as it deals with Romney fighting for recognition on the campaign trail, consulting with his family, interacting with voters, lamenting his portrayal as a “flip-flopper” and suffering setbacks like Florida governor Charlie Crist’s surprise endorsement of McCain. There’s a subtle shift in tone to the second half, as if the family became more guarded once the White House was in view, but this section offers highlights of its own. That includes a closeup view of Romney’s anxiety before his first televised debate with Obama; the subsequent celebration of his “victory” followed by feelings of frustration after the second debate; the surreal image of Romney ironing the cuff of his dress shirt while he’s wearing it before a gala dinner; and the riveting extended footage as the family watches results come in on election night.
Whereas most political docs have a clear agenda to push, the primary goal here is to counteract a political culture that turns every candidate into a caricature. These are, after all, regular people. Even the flip-flopping Mormon millionaires.
Tech credits are generally solid, especially the editing by Whiteley and Adam Ridley, though the camerawork is often shaky even by the standards of verite cinema.