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.]
Just because the grand reveal on Mitt Romney is that he's not a spectacularly interesting man doesn't mean that "Mitt" is uninteresting. President politics is a unique battlefield and access like Whiteley has been given is almost inherently valuable. The key is tempering expectations.
This is not "Game Change," or any piece of political reporting.
Don't expect it to be that and you'll be part of the way there already. Whiteley doesn't think twice about skipping over major events if they happen to have been purely political in nature. Towards the end of the movie, Paul Ryan pops up and you think, "Oh right. He was a thing. I wonder what his relationship with Mitt was like," but that's not a part of Whiteley's agenda.
Calling "Mitt" non-ideological would probably be an understatement. Other than minor frustration that Democrats simply don't understand small businesses and that those small businesses are over-taxed, Romney's backstage presence as depicted by Whiteley is completely devoid of dogma or policy or posturing or positioning. I have a somewhat difficult time believing this is an accurate portrait of the totality of the campaign, but it's the totality of what Whiteley has chosen to show. I don't think that's a wrong decision, by the way. It clears out certain waters and allows certain viewers -- myself included, honestly -- to look at Mitt Romney without looking at what he believes in.
And speaking of what Romney believes in, Whiteley has also decided that "belief" would muddy certain waters. The Mitt Romney here admits that there's nothing he can do about the public image of his Mormon beliefs, but if you take "Mitt" as a representative sample of Romney's life, he doesn't go to church and isn't in any demonstrative way different from any God-fearing Christian. There are several scenes of casual family prayer, but there isn't a spoken word that would alienate anybody with concerns, distrust or even slight curiosity about the Mormon side of Mitt. Again, I have a somewhat difficult time believing this is an accurate portrait of the totality of the man's beliefs, but it's the totality of what Whiteley has chosen to burden us with.
So the Mitt in "Mitt" isn't especially Republican and he isn't especially Mormon. The candidate frankly says his image is that of "The Flipping Mormon," sou can sense Whiteley saying, "OK. Have I removed enough stumbling blocks for you? Can you see Mitt now?"
"Mitt," Whiteley's presentation of Mitt Romney, is, more than anything else, about Mitt's presentation of Mitt, or at least Mitt's awareness of his own presentation.
That's the nature of contemporary politics. In one of the doc's only interviews with anybody outside of the Romney family, we see an early TV satellite appearance from Detroit in which there's discussion of how to properly light and film Mitt for the feed, only to have the anchor frankly tell the candidate that nobody knows who he is. His early anonymity is reenforced in pre-2008 moments in which diners at a fast food restaurant and then clerks at a South Carolina hotel don't know how he is.
And, in that vein, much of the documentary is about both the development of an image, the maintenance of an image and the risks of that maintenance. We see lots of Mitt Romney Prep Time, including lots of sitting in hair and makeup. We see Mitt rehearsing for debates and also working with his team on the site of early debates, learning about the logistics of a podium curve or the height of a chair. Politics is theater and if you like the theater, you'll be interested in this aspect "Mitt." If nothing else, ou'll be amused at how weirdly shocking it is when, after an appearance, wife Ann comes up and ruffles his hair. I was unmoved through most of the documentary, but when that happened, I thought, "Can she DO that?!?" You will, too!
In these moments of preparation there are little glimpses of Mitt Romney's real pulse. The guy loves "O Brother Where Art Thou." He chuckles loudly at David Sedaris. He tries making jokes himself and even if they're not funny, he's smiling through them. Like Brad Pitt on-screen, he's constantly eating. The question of where these slightly off-beat traits vanish or get absorbed in more public moments is never explained or explored, nor is it really lamented. All-access Mitt is only willing to ruffle his hair or let down his guard periodically.
Whiteley may have had full access, but if Romney had any actual political advisors in either Presidential campaign, we don't see them. All information is processed through his wife and, for the most part, through sons John and Tagg. There are three Romney children and roughly 20-ish grandchildren who didn't want to provide the same access or weren't around as much. It's unclear. But even the Romney wife and kids are also invested in both their own public images and the images of The Candidate. In one great moment, John offers the director two different versions of the question "Is it worth it?," the real answer and the media answer, and even if the "real" answer -- "This is why you don't get good people to run for president" -- is different, it still seems calculated and prepared more than natural. It runs in the family to seem stiff and over-calculated even when trying to seem natural.
Everybody in the Romney family knows exactly how much of themselves to show and even what Whiteley sees is performative, at least to some degree. In the 2008 campaign, we see the drain on Ann, for example, and we see her in tears on several occasions. But then when 2012 rolls around and Whiteley is asking about her health and her MS diagnosis, no sign of candor is slipping through the mask of strength and determination. Is her upbeat attitude for herself? For the camera? Does it matter? I don't know.
It's interesting, but it's frustrating.
What may be the bottom line regarding "Mitt" is that it's a documentary that Mitt Romney and the family will watch now -- Mitt was at the Sundance premiere -- and I don't believe there's a single second that anybody will regret seeing on-screen or will be embarrassed to see on-screen. And that means one of two alternatives: Either things were exactly that boring, uneventful and and sanitized behind the scenes of the Romney campaign, or Whiteley kept things soft.
When there's adversity, Whiteley's concentration leans heavily on the adversity that Romney came out of with strength and success.
So Whiteley features footage of the leaked 47% speech that came to color the entire Romney campaign, but for all of Whiteley's access, you're to think Romney had no behind-the-scenes reaction to the video and its impact at all. You're to think it, but probably not believe it. I'm not saying Mitt Romney started swearing and trashing hotel rooms, but don't pretend he didn't react, just because it was a thing that never really got a positive spin.
However, the first 2012 Presidential Debate, which Romney entered as a decided underdog but left having scored a clear and dominant victory, is perhaps the pivotal scene in the documentary, complete with ever-so-many-hugs.
The second debate, which most people viewed as either a draw or a slim Obama win, is also painted as a, "We expected to lose, so we won" victory for Romney. That debate also showcases perhaps Romney's only truly fiery anger in the entire doc, directed at moderator Candy Crowley and her steering of the Benghazi question. Yes, it's a depiction of adversity for Mitt, but you'll find plenty of liberals who will acknowledge that Crowley wasn't a very good moderator, so he gets to look righteous there as well. [If Romney's "binders full of women" comment during that debate had any impact on the candidate or the campaign, it's ignored. Similarly, the third debate, widely considered a comfortable Obama win, just never happened here.]
Yes, it's informative to watch Romney prepare his concession speech on Election Night 2012 and to see how the actual writing of the speech differed from the popular media narrative of that evening, but we knew the speech came out well and was generally praised, meaning it's yet another example of Whiteley only showing adversity that Romney emerged from unbowed.
"Mitt," which will probably be the first 2014 Sundance film to be publicly available thanks to Netflix, will play well to Romney's supporters and to pure junkies of the political process, Whiteley's access probably makes it a worthwhile document as well. It's the audiences looking for more depth than, "It Turns Out Mitt Romney Is Exactly Who You Thought He Was" who will be forced to determine whether the fault for that lack of insight rests with Whiteley or with the reality of Romney himself.
Either you decide that all-access honestly yielded this no-warts-at-all portrait, or you decide that Whiteley decided his best story was "The Portrait of a Candidate as a Nice Man." Either way, the result is vanilla depiction of vanilla, appropriate but not more.
"Mitt" premieres on Netflix on Friday, January 24.
Other Sundance reviews:
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