One of the hardest documentary approaches to wrap your head around is the one in which the filmmaker goes to a lot of trouble to show you that beyond the public facade of a subject matter, the previously unseen reality is... exactly what you already thought you knew.
I got into multiple good-natured fights last year with R.J. Cutler, including an amusing back-and-forth in the snow on Main Street in Park City, about whether or not the former Vice President's stubbornness in "The World According To Dick Cheney" was a lack of introspection or a display of self-conviction and how that shaped the rest of the film. I'm sure Cutler was right, but what made "The World According To Dick Cheney" work was that no matter your ideology, your feelings on Cheney were confirmed but tweaked in interesting ways. What you didn't get from "The World According to Dick Cheney" was enlightenment, but that's a product of the kind of man Dick Cheney seems to be and the kind of access R.J. Cutler had.
In the fittingly titled "Mitt," Director Greg Whiteley was granted unprecedented access to Mitt Romney from 2006 through 20012 and he was able to follow him from the beginning of an unsuccessful campaign for the Republican Presidential nomination in 2008 and an unsuccessful run for the Presidency in 2012.
At an early fundraiser in 2006, Romney tells potential backers of the risks of unsuccessful runs for high office.
"We just brutalize whoever loses," he says.
It could just be my own perception, but I don't feel like Romney was ever "brutalized," per se. At his absolute nadir, he wasn't viewed as anything worse than a slightly robotic, slightly ideologically insecure man who weathered a few major gaffes and pulled off one debate surprise, but still wasn't able to convince the majority of Americans that he deserved to be president. There were jokes about his interchangeably huge family and certain people never forgot accusations of abuse regarding a family dog and rumbling about his Mormon faith was occasionally in the background, but a fundamental blandness prevented any real long-lasting vilification. I could be wrong, but I don't think Democrats are likely to use "Mitt Romney" as the punchline for jokes in the way that, say, "Michael Dukakis" has been getting laughs from both parties for decades.
So Greg Whiteley's "Mitt" has to combat an image of bland innocuousness and, at the end of 92 minutes befitting its surplus of access, we're left with a portrait of Mitt Romney that is... blandly innocuous. I was not a Mitt Romney supporter, but I'll agree without hesitation that he comes across as a sturdy guy and a good family man here. And for Romney family members and supporters, I think there may be a feeling that this documentary shows the side of Romney that maybe America didn't get to see in 2012, which I don't quite think is true. I think "Mitt" shows the side of Mitt Romney that everybody was willing to accept on faith was there in 2012. We just didn't care.
[More on "Mitt," premiering out of competition at Sundance, after the break.]