The Real(er) Mitt

Greg Whiteley

Greg Whiteley

Mitt Romney’s large and attractive family loves and admires him–his son Josh says, “What better guy is there than my dad?”–which is unsurprising, how it should be.  But familial accord is not in and of itself a qualification for the presidency. (And an estranged daughter did not disqualify Ronald Reagan.)

Filmmaker Greg Whiteley’s “Mitt,” stunningly made as if by the proverbial fly on the wall, follows the Romney bunch for six years, from a family confab in December 2006, weighing the pros and cons of a run for the 2008 Republican nomination, through Mitt and Ann’s subdued return home to Belmont, MA, after his defeat by Barack Obama.

The family prays together often–Ann Romney, on the eve of the South Caroline primary in 2008, proclaims, “Our desires in doing this are pure.”  (I was fine with Romney playing down his affiliation and beliefs during the election–our political discourse is already permeated with religion.)  And she and son Tagg talk about her struggles with MS, a topic avoided during the campaign.

Romney jokes around (tells a groomer preparing him for TV appearance, “Careful, don’t break my hair”); judges himself a potentially flawed candidate if he’s unable to escape the label of the “Flipping Mormon;” hugs family members often and tightly, with big pats on the back; and shows a surprising awareness of the popular culture–“O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is a favorite film.

While being a Mormon may have helped Greg convince the Romneys to allow him access (and maybe also opened doors for his first film, “New York Doll,” 2005,  which profiled Arthur “Killer” Kane, member of the seminal punk/glam band and then newly converted to the Church of Latter Day Saints), ultimately the family was well-served by his talent as a documentarian and his true empathy.

Romney is undoubtedly only one of many presidential candidate to have appealing personality traits that weren’t viewable on the trail–shortly after his loss to Bill Clinton, Bob Dole shockingly proved to be genuinely funny.

But I was amazed that Romney who seems so entitled, made a fortune in the brutal world of private equity, and famously unsparingly criticized “the 47%,” has a profound sense of gratitude toward his father.  Unlike George W. Bush who “was born on third base and thought he’d hit a home run,” Romney is aware that he was born to privilege and is in awe of and truly loved his self-made father.  During a presidential debate he writes “Dad” on his pad and after it concludes tells his family, “No way I’d be running for president if Dad didn’t do what he did.  He’s the real deal…I started where he ended up.”

But maybe that’s Romney’s true flaw as a candidate.  Having had a father who bridged the enormous gap between his origins and professional achievements (CEO, governor and presidential candidate), Romney might believe this is a path readily available to all Americans.  And this, not his stiffness or his reluctance to talk about faith, is what doomed his candidacy–after all, it’s the politics, stupid.

Greg’s film, like the trees in Michigan, which according to Romney, “are the right height,” is the right length, ending with the Romneys returning after the 2012 election to their luxury townhouse, with an exterior peculiarly identical–no little boxes made of ticky tacky, these–to those of their neighbors in their upscale development, the Woodlands at Belmont Hill.  No need to shoot additional  footage in 2014–rumors that after the film’s Sundance Salt Lake City gala premiere, and with Chris Christie’s ongoing implosion, Romney was considering a presidential run, take three, are already fading.

“Mitt” premieres on Friday, January 24, at 11:00 am PST on Netflix.

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