As much as I love presidential elections, I hate presidential elections. The infuriatingly drawn out campaigns bring out some of the most cruel and combative elements of our political culture. The 2012 election wasn’t special in this respect, but it did seem distinctly nasty. I get just as swept up in the fervor as the next person, and in 2012 that meant reaching the point of despising Mitt Romney by the time November rolled around.
But the unprecedented and uncensored look at a man often described as robotic caught my attention from the first few seconds of the Netflix documentary’s trailer. One filmmaker having access for multiple years to the Romney family? It was hard to believe the highly guarded and carefully rehearsed Romney would agree to something of this nature, particularly seeing as how he lost the nomination in 2008 and the election in 2012. As a political junkie, how could I resist?
“Mitt”, the end result of years of Greg Whiteley’s following the Romney family on the campaign trail, did not disappoint. From the early footage of his family eating in a fast food restaurant where no one knows who is it to the election day visit to a similar chain where a crowd surrounds him, the movie provides a distinctly different image of a highly public figure.Although the core was very familiar — the religiosity and primary talking points — the overall impression left by the Mitt Romney of the film was far more likable than he was during the campaign.
A few things stand out immediately in the film, including the closeness of his family. Rather than the bizarrely perfect postcard presented by his campaign, the Romney family seems quick to laugh and fun to spend time with. A cacophony of voices rises around numerous tables as sons, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren joke and interject during family discussions. Ann is more subdued than I expected, though not submissive — she is focused, serious, and no doubt the one in charge. I was surprised by the level of involvement his family had in his campaign, serving as advisers and coaches rather than simple props to create an image around their patriarch.
There is also a surprising level of awareness. In both election cycles, Mitt was aware of his shortcomings, such as the foreign policy debate in 2012. It was a refreshing perspective when compared to the constantly upbeat nature of presidential campaigns, always downplaying the missteps. Mitt also acknowledges his own privilege, particularly when discussing his father. While passionately telling his family why he always thinks of his dad during debates, he makes mention of the fact that he started with wealth and education, things his father did not have. It’s a moment that is at once touching and striking, given the impression he left during the campaign of having no sense of his own starting advantage.
Soon after the election of 2012, his family came under fire after comments were made suggesting he never really wanted to be president. After watching “Mitt”, I’m not surprised. The entire Romney clan was hesitant before his first bid for the presidency, remained unsure if it was worth the effort throughout the campaign, and then asserted that it wasn’t something they would do again in 2012. Ann specifically said it was too much, while his sons joked that it was a one-and-done situation. Although they rallied behind him and were genuinely surprised he didn’t win in 2012, the disappointment seemed tempered by the acknowledgement that really, their lives would be better off without the White House. I couldn’t help but wonder if the Obamas may have felt the same way had the second term slipped through their fingers.
Mitt himself comes across as far more normal than he did during the election. When not trying to come across as the every man, he seems distinctly likable. I never would have pegged him as able to quote “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, which he and Ann do off the cuff while getting ready for a debate. He was like the goofy dad of a friend, who may not know when to stop talking and leave the kids alone, but is still pleasant nonetheless. When he jokes about his own wealth it feels natural and fluid rather than uptight and pretentious, and his interactions with his grandchildren are touching. The sincerity that seemed missing in the campaign is present in “Mitt”, and at times I questioned whether I would have been able to muster the same distaste I had for him if it had been present on the stump.
In a voiceover, one of his sons mentions his hope that the public gets to know his dad for who he really is, and the question of why the campaign didn’t let that happen kept coming back to me throughout the film. The buttoned up, insincere Mitt Romney of the election differs so sharply with the “real” Mitt that the folly of how we approach presidential elections seems more stark than ever. The Romney campaign gave us the candidate they thought most likely to be elected, not the man who possesses qualities to which we could easily relate. It says something about political culture, and although it’s unlikely to change in the future it’s worth reflection.
Did it change my overall opinion of Mitt Romney or the 2012 election? Not necessarily. Even if he’s not a robot, my opinion of his policies hasn’t changed. If you supported Obama before watching “Mitt”, you’ll likely support him after. But this behind-the-scenes look at a campaign serves a more important purpose, giving us an uncensored look at something that was so highly stylized. Perhaps eventually this kind of access will not be rare, and we can move past this strange time of publically-dictated-personality in politics, letting our candidates act like the humans they are rather than the amalgamation of polling responses we currently must endure.
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