The afterlife of a failed political candidate is a strange thing; that of a failed presidential candidate perhaps the strangest of all. As Mitt Romney puts it himself in Mitt, Greg Whiteley’s Netflix documentary about the two-time presidential candidate and governor of Massachusetts,“They become a loser for life, all right? That’s it. It’s over.” And yet, with that finality comes a wave of sympathy from the public. Enter the post-campaign documentary, an art form that at its core feeds on those very emotions, particularly among viewers who didn’t vote for the candidate.
Fittingly, Mitt starts at the end: the camera opens on a hotel room filled with Romneys; the time, 11:15 p.m. on election night, 2012. The first line is delivered in the voice of an off-camera child. “You’re at, like, 101, and he’s at, like, 259, or something?” one of Romney’s grandchildren tells him.
“Yeah, yeah. Exactly,” Romney answers. His tone, amazingly, is compassionate, consoling. More than anything in the world, Romney hates to disappoint, one of his sons tells us later in the film. The camera passes over the heads of Taggs and Bens and over the beautiful hair of the Romney daughters-in-law, landing finally on Mitt Romney, sitting on a couch next to two grandchildren in a posture that in hindsight can really only be called brave. “By the way, someone have a number for the president?” the presidential candidate says to lighten the mood. “I do,” a voice calls from offstage. “Ok,” Romney says. “Hadn’t thought about that.” He laughs. “So… what do you think you say in a concession speech?”
The moment, perhaps a relief for some in 2012, is nothing short of heartbreaking in 2014; a man surrounded by the family he adores, and who he has just failed. What he has failed to do, and what the implications of his having won might have been, are kept far off-screen throughout the film. All that we see is a man who wants more than anything to make his family proud—a notable reversal of the emotional structure of most families. With that narrative so clearly intact, and Romney’s presidential hopes so fully dashed, the opening scene sets the viewer up for nothing short of tragedy.
And Whiteley delivers. With Romney neutralized, the scenes of the election feature not a man with the potential power to enact policy but someone who we know tried, and failed, to reach our nation’s highest office. Seen from this perspective, it’s hard not to root for the guy.
It’s not only the close-up glimpses of Romney that enhance the emotional tenor of the film. Viewers get the perspective of those who love and adore him and want him to succeed. There’s a Leave it to Beaver feeling to Whiteley’s moving portrayal of the Romneys. Never a harsh word, never a disagreement. Romney himself is witty, loving, takes a tearful Ann on his lap and buries his face in her. The sons admire their father but don’t at all fear him—he is too playful, too willing to listen.
Ultimately, though, Mitt portrays a man who is less a leader than a follower. He sees himself as existing in the shadow of his father’s success (he writes “Dad” at the top of his debate notepad). He seeks council from his family, and follows the advice of his off-screen advisers. And most notably of all, the film reveals how deeply committed Romney is to his religion—an aspect of his personality which was very much downplayed throughout his candidacy. The scenes in which the family prays together are deeply moving—at one point Romney thanks God for “Anne, my sweetheart;” revealing a side of himself we definitely didn’t see during the campaign.
It’s no wonder Romney appeared wooden to voters; he had to hide a major part of what motivates him. Yet even here in the hearth of the Romney clan, while glimpses of religion are central to Whiteley’s portrayal, the family’s Mormonism is hardly on display. It’s surprising how the documentary, whose creator, Whitely, is himself a Mormon, casts a sanitized gloss on the religious moments, all of which are themselves highly unspecific. One could watch this film and never know that Romney is a Mormon (except when he calls himself “the flipping Mormon”), which suggests that even in a film purporting to be an intimate portrait of Romney, some things are still off-limits, and get edited out.
But why? Did Whiteley fear that the film’s largely sympathetic portrayal of Romney would be compromised by overtly Mormon scenes? How much of this narrative decision was informed by Whiteley’s own Mormon background? Would the intimacy viewers feel watching this lovely portrait of a close-knit family potentially have been disabled by the specifics of the Romney’s Mormon faith? Unfortunately, because Mitt doesn’t deliver on this front, we’ll never know.
Batya Ungar-Sargon is a freelance writer who lives in New York. Her Twitter feed is @bungarsargon.