“All I know about politics is what I get from The Daily Show and Colbert,” a hotel desk clerk tells the camera in the new documentary Mitt. And that seems to have been the problem for Mitt Romney’s failed 2012 presidential bid. It was not uncommon during the campaign to hear Romney called opportunistic, unprincipled, even sociopathic. He was an out of touch, rich guy candidate impugned by conservatives and liberals alike for—as Romney himself puts it in the film—his willingness to “say or do anything to get elected.” The Romney we meet in the documentary (available to stream on Netflix), however, is earnest, likeable, vulnerable, and all too human.
This is not an insider account of the machinations of Romney’s closest advisers. For that sort of film, you will have to watch the classic 1993 documentary The War Room about Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign. Rather, this is a collection of Romney’s intimate moments with family on the campaign trail, from weighing whether or not to run in the 2008 election to his 2012 return home as an also-ran. Through this series of tender vignettes, shot mostly in various hotel rooms as the sizeable Romney clan criss-crossed the country, we get the sense that for any fatal flaws he might have had as a candidate, Romney loves his family, loves his country, and was trying his best to be a credit to both.
Here we see Romney not as we knew him from speeches and news clips, but as a man who laughed along with his family while listening to an episode of “This American Life,” who chased after garbage blowing in the wind on a hotel balcony, who prayed and cried along with those who he loves. It was deeply moving to observe just how present Romney’s late father George was on the campaign. The former governor of Michigan who had himself tested the presidential waters at one time lived on in spirit as an old banner hung on the campaign bus, and as a reminder of his presence that the younger Romney scrawled on his notes for the first debate against President Obama. Dad must have done the trick; Romney is widely considered to have upset the president in that debate.
Ultimately, Romney never shook the public perception that he was the “flippin’ Mormon,” an appellation he was aware at the time would very possibly lose him the race no matter what he did. A few days after the campaign was over, and even after the documentary camera has left, a gas station customer snapped a cellphone picture of a bedraggled Mitt Romney pumping his own gas. This was the first sign of Romney’s humanity. If only the viewers, educated on Stewart and Colbert, had seen this documentary footage prior to the election and not 14 months later. In one revealing scene, Romney pens an Election Day victory speech that was never to be delivered on his chartered plane. I couldn’t help but think of what might have been.