“Mitt”: Too Calculated to be Genuine

Mitt Romney in the Netflix documentary "Mitt." Photo courtesy of Netflix

Greg Whiteley‘s film Mitt, a Netflix exclusive, gets up close and personal to Republican, and 2012 presidential candidate, Mitt Romney. Despite not being an easy fit within his own party, Romney led the Republicans in a decent showing before losing the 2012 Presidential election. Whiteley kicks off his film with the simple argument, that in the frenzy of the debates and political sound bites, the real Mitt Romney was lost. Mitt is his attempt to bring audiences in closer, and meet the true Mitt Romney.

The film kicks off with Romney facing his loss on Election Day, before transporting us back in time, to 2006, just before his first presidential campaign. We see Romney and his family sledding down a snow-covered hill before retiring to their log cabin to discuss the pros and cons of his decision to run for president. The film skips through time at a swift pace, highlighting Romney’s strongest debates, and wins during fundraising. There are a few key moments where we see Romney struggling, such as his frustration and disappointment upon learning that he lost the endorsement of Florida’s governor Charlie Crist. Whiteley highlights these tough moments on the campaign trail by focusing in on Romney’s family, who stood by his side through thick and thin.

One detail that nagged at me as I watched Mitt unfold is that the film noticeably steers clear of controversy. There are many reasons why someone may not have voted for Romney, and chief among them was his apparent inability to empathize with people different than himself. For instance, Mitt briefly touches on one of Romney’s most controversial statements. At a private fundraiser, Romney stated that he didn’t care about the “47%” of American’s who don’t pay income tax. This inaccurate, and offensive statement struck a chord with voters and Romney quickly found himself in hot water. Whiteley reveals Romney preparing himself to defend this statement, but the whole scenario is quickly dropped. Whiteley plays it safe, and avoids hard questions entirely.

This is the film’s key failure. The audience is a fly on the wall observing a puppet show. Romney goes through the ‘good guy’ motions. He prays. He goofs around. He shows devotion to his wife and family. Yet it all feels so carefully calculated. Even more frustrating is that Romney never speaks directly to the camera. I was hoping for at least one heartfelt conversation about his hopes or fears, strengths or weaknesses. Instead, we are fed choice clips of him speaking with conviction to his staff and family. Romney is present but he hardly makes an impression, gliding through the film and providing no commentary on his actions or motivations. The mask he wears during debates seems as fixed as ever for Whiteley’s camera.

Strangely enough, I learned more about Romney’s family than I did about him. For instance, Mitt contains candid conversations with Romney’s son Josh, who laughs as he gives the camera two answers to the same question. His media trained response about his father’s campaign versus his frank comments about the pressure and hardships they have faced. Furthermore, Ann Romney‘s admissions regarding her struggles with MS allowed me to feel a personal connection to a woman with whom I have little in common. These small moments made me understand them a little more, and grasp their immense love and support of Romney’s political journey. If only the film had been called ‘The Romney’s’, it would have been perfect.

Mitt ultimately falls short of its goal. Although it presents an interesting overview of the issues Romney dealt with on the campaign trail, its message is too controlled to feel genuine. The complete lack of Romney’s voice serves only to reinforce the idea that this film is just another platform. As the credits rolled I felt I had only seen yet another mask, and wondered just how far down you would have to dig to find the ‘real’ Mitt Romney.