"If people really got to know who you are, it could be a successful campaign," Craig Romney says to his father near the beginning of "Mitt," when the family's gathered for the holidays in 2006, discussing the pros and cons of Mitt Romney running for president. Seven years on, the statement serves as a retroactive laugh line. Who, among his detractors or his supporters, felt like they really got to know Romney, a candidate who was broadly categorized for changing his positions on issues, and who came across as so stiff some jokingly likened him to a robot?
"Mitt," directed by Greg Whiteley (of "Resolved" and "New York Doll"), is a quietly compelling documentary that follows Romney and his family along both his 2008 and 2012 campaigns, and that presents a man who's decidedly human, has a sense of humor and some firm beliefs. Even if you care little about him as a politician -- and I'll confess to that myself -- "Mitt" offers up a fascinating divide between the private man and the public image. It's a divide the film is unable to account for on screen, which is understandable and frustrating: while Whiteley got access to the Romney family, he doesn't appear to have gotten the same from the campaign managers and staff, and so we see little of the thought process and advice that went into its candidate's speeches or choices on the trail.
The closest we get is a moment in 2008 when Romney explains how he was told to use the word "change" instead of his preferred phrase "Washington is broken." He felt it was "trite" and overused, but lost the battle with his consultant Alex Castellanos and ended up incorporating it anyway, though, he claims, in a more "philosophical way" that's "more direct." "You can tell the difference, in listening to the speeches, is that right?" he asks the camera. "Yeah," Whiteley sputters from behind it, "I thought there was, uh..." "A change?" Romney finishes, deadpan.
That Romney can actually be funny is a pleasant surprise -- in the film, he comes across as even-keeled and prone to self-deprecation. Mentioning how they put their own money into the 2008 campaign, he noted at least they will have built a brand: "People will know me, they'll know what I stand for -- the flipping Mormon!" The Romneys laugh over David Sedaris on "This American Life" over dinner and quote "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" They all pray together, frequently. We see Romney in his bathrobe getting good news on a primary win, we see his family, distraught, as he considers what to say in his concession speech in 2012. Whiteley is not one to ask hard questions of his subjects (and isn't really in a position to), which leads the film to play more like a collection of home movies at points -- there are no stealthy dark revelations to be found.
It's impossible to say whether the Romney we see in "Mitt" would have been more appealing to voters, but the film certainly makes an indirect case that the person who presented himself and was presented to the public was controlled to a fault, shorn of distinguishing characteristics. "I believe we're following the same path of every other great nation," he says to his family and advisers as the election results roll in and make it clear he's going to lose. "Which is greater government, tax the rich people, promise more stuff from everybody, borrow until we go over a cliff. We have a very high risk of reaching the tipping point in the next five years."
You may not agree, but you believe he believes it, and that those are the concerns he feels more deeply about and seems more comfortable discussing than, say those of the flubbed attempt to attack President Obama about Benghazi we saw in the pair's second debate, a clip from which is included in the film. As an observation of a candidate on the campaign trail, "Mitt" offers a sensitive if not terribly deep portrait of a side of Romney we never before got to see.
Criticwire Grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Acquired by Netflix, "Mitt" will premiere on the streaming service on Friday, January 24, 2014 at
12:01am 11am PT, a week after its Sundance premiere on the 17th, giving it an opportunity to capitalize on press from the festival and perhaps attract a broader audience across the political spectrum.