The recently released Netflix documentary MITT opens on a scene of Mitt Romney, his team, and his family anxiously counting electoral votes in a hotel room. The candidate himself fights back tears in a final shot before everything fades to black, the moment you assume he knows that he will not win, the moment that a nearly-decade long quest to win the presidency comes to an end. The movie goes on to follow the private life of a man fighting for the nation’s highest office, at a time when his life is far from private.
And, if you are one of the few Republicans still reeling from the 2012 election cycle, convinced that Mitt Romney was systematically robbed by a media that unfairly portrayed him as a cyborg with superhuman hair follicles, the movie will probably fulfill your private quest for emotional closure. Because 10 minutes in, you’ll be elbow deep in a pint of Ben & Jerry’s New York Triple Fudge Chunk, crying your eyes out at the future that never was, perhaps in the survival bunker he thinks you’re building to wait out the coming apocalypse at the end of Obama’s second term, a concern Mitt voiced in private that probably should have stayed there.
MITT is less about the 2008 and 2012 campaigns, their overarching strategy, or the people who won or lost them, than it is about what running for public office does to a family, even one that appears as strong and loving as the Romneys. They make decisions together, laugh and cry together, and ultimately share in defeat together. Mere hours after the news comes down that nearly every swing state has gone against them, Mitt and his wife walk hand-in-hand into an empty Massachusetts townhouse, like two sweet lovebirds in the most depressing Frank Capra movie ever produced.
Filmmaker Greg Whitely followed the Romneys through Mitt’s entire quest, from the moment in the 2008 primaries when Charlie Crist’s fake tan and malleable public persona delivered Florida for John McCain, to the time Mitt spent wolfing down a plate of pasta and praying with his family ahead of the first debate, right to the bittersweet end. We see him angry (specifically at charges that he’s a “flip-flopper,” which he called “dog food shipped from the McCain campaign”), happily cuddling his seemingly million grandchildren, talking about how he relies on the memory of his father for courage, comforting his crying wife, looking thrilled at the possibility of a Secret Service escort, and arguing with his kids about the relative merits of airport food courts. Parts of the documentary were completed in 2009, but the Romney family only agreed to its release now that Mitt’s career in the spotlight is, ostensibly, over—when whatever damage they thought it might do to Mitt’s campaign could be completely avoided.
Much has been made of how Documentary Romney, who rolls down snowy hills with his grandkids and snarks back at his wife for criticizing his duct-taped gloves (seriously, they’re awful), differs from the Candidate Romney, a man who may as well have been a metallic Muppet with a busted emotion-replicator chip and a polished plastic coif.
That said, the Documentary Romney—the hard-working, devout, loving, and generous man, who laughs and cries alongside his close-knit kin—is no surprise to most people who were, at least, tangentially involved in the campaign. Mitt was never a plastic man. He was a good man who you wanted to believe was going to be a good president. But for most of the media, laboring under the caricature of Mitt Romney they themselves created, this personal view of Romney is shockingly candid, almost revolutionary. How could a man with a car elevator and impermeable gray hair have feelings that America’s Fourth Estate could not locate despite unparalleled sleuthing skills? For sure, it must have been deep-sixed by a campaign hell-bent on scraping the last vestiges of personality from the Republican nominee! Now that Mitt Romney is no longer a threat to the second coronation of Barack Obama, Mitt Romney is a soft and gentle man we were told next to nothing about.
For sure, the Romney campaign took no chances. It made no effort to make the presidential campaign into the reality television competition most of the country is convinced it is—after all, that’s the only place Americans regularly vote, anyway. Romney advisors scoffed at humor as unprofessional, resisted the argument that personality and accessibility define a candidate for a population that is turned on to politics only once every four years, and managed an incredibly sheltered campaign that cut itself off from the outside world, even where poll numbers were concerned.
But as the documentary shows, Mitt’s fatal flaw was not that he ran a bad campaign, or that he was even necessarily a bad candidate. Mitt’s fatal flaw was that, ultimately, he was a good guy, a fair guy, an honest guy, maybe even the right guy, who knew what the job of president should be, and who knew he was the best and most qualified man for it. For whatever reason, politics just does not look kindly on such men. Or, for that matter, his family. Because if you do not want Ann Romney to be your mother (or, at least, your aunt) by the end of this movie, you are an unmovable, ice-cold piece of boulder.