MITT Review: Watching Home Movies
In the mid 2000s, I used to blog about politics and social issues until managing the venom with which people would respond – down party lines and on both sides of the aisle, I might add – became more of an effort than the writing was worth. I wanted discourse. I got discord. I still follow politics, although not as closely; that same unwillingness to entertain a difference of opinion, to forgoing a discussion in lieu of waiting for your turn to talk, has permeated the media to the point that television and radio are sick with it.
And it usually involves yelling. Lots and lots of yelling.
My absence from routine involvement with politics contributed to my interest in Mitt, a Netflix original documentary about Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential candidate. So much of what we see from candidates on television feels so very manufactured, and this film promises to be not that. Rather, it touts an intimate look behind the curtain of Romney’s political pursuits.
In 2006, Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and the man behind the successful 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, was on his way to becoming a legitimate contender for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. Both parties had their respective slots up for grabs, with Senators Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama battling on the left, and a field on the right that included former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Arizona Senator John McCain. This documentary, which purports to offer unfettered access to the Romney family and campaign, covers the 6(ish)-year period of time between the 2006 campaign trail and the 2012 presidential election.
I usually struggle with any documentary that relies heavily on behind-the-scenes access because if there is anything that Reality TV has taught me, it’s that turning on a camera changes the behavior of the subject. That said, while I wasn’t expecting Romney and Family to behave like the Real Housewives of Salt Lake City, I certainly didn’t expect what I did get: an ernest and devoted family led by a genuine and sincere patriarch. I don’t say that to suggest I thought ill of them; again, it’s the manufactured image for television that sets certain expectations. Not once while watching this did I think that the Romneys were putting on airs or mugging for the camera. In fact, so humble is the family that it exposes the great flaw in Candidate Romney: neither he nor his team (read: family) has sufficient political savvy to execute a successful presidential campaign.
This is clear in the film’s first scene: election night 2012. Romney knows he has been beaten by President Obama, and the defeated candidate asks his inner-circle if they know what to write in a concession speech. Everyone sits and looks blankly at everyone else. Sure, this might be a case of a team refusing to admit defeat, but the awkwardly dead air in the room and the absence of any objection suggests otherwise. Despite six years, two presidential primaries, and one general election – not to mention a successful bid for MA governor in 2002 – Romney’s campaign team didn’t understand the fundamentals of the last thing a candidate needs to do in the face of defeat.
It’s a theme that is repeated throughout the film – a team unwilling to be (or incapable of being) tough for its candidate. Every campaign needs that person – that pit bull who knows when to tell the candidate what to do, even if what to do is difficult and the candidate might disagree. It’s called a campaign manager, and while Romney might have had one of those, s/he didn’t get the kind of screen time that the family did, nor did s/he have a voice like the family had.
What’s so interesting is that the family never looks like they kowtow to Romney out of fear; it’s more a matter of acquiescing to the patriarch out of respect. Dad is in charge of the family and what dad wants is what we all want. There is no sense of passion; there is support and a sense of obligation to the head of the family.
Consider Romney’s 2008 presidential bid. After struggling early in the campaign simply to be recognized, Romney starts gaining momentum. There is a televised candidates’ debate scheduled, and the big disagreement in the Romney camp is how aggressive the candidate should be – not angry or mean, just a little chesty. Romney wants to be able to challenge McCain and others, but the family seems content in just sticking to the script. When being labeled a flip-flopper hinders Romney, there is no one on his team pushing him on how to fight back. Romney constantly calls out what is wrong, and the family repeatedly agrees, but does little else. And no one on the team smells blood in the water, even after a big primary win in Michigan.
Once Romney finally loses the 2008 primary to McCain, the family members express a sense of relief that it’s all over. Matriarch Ann Romney goes so far as to suggest that she write a note to herself on why they should not attempt another run in four years. No one seems angry that they lost. No one breaks down film and asks where things went wrong. No one is itching for revenge. They all treat it like it’s just another little league baseball game lost, where everyone hangs their head and goes out for ice cream after, even though Romney spent a small personal fortune to do it.
The same positive but lifeless support carried forward in 2012. It’s instinctive to call this a losing attitude, but because everyone’s actions were driven by familial motives, I think it’s more misguided sentiment. Dad tried, dad failed, let’s all be positive for dad on his bad day. It’s a Hallmark card, not a campaign button.
Mitt isn’t a story about a politician and his family; it’s a story about a family man involved in politics. Romney’s late father is his idol; his wife is his rock; his sons are his advisors. He surrounds himself with family at all times and while his reliance on them is heartfelt and noble, it is also his Achilles Heel. Even his success in 2012 might have been less about a winning strategy and more about entitlement. In a brief exchange he had with one of his sons, when Romney suggested that McCain won in 2008 because he was “next,” a suggestion followed that if McCain lost to Obama in the 2008 presidential election, Romney would get the 2012 nod because he would then be “next.”
Having watched Mitt, I have a greater respect for the former candidate because he seemed more sincere in the 92 minutes of documentary footage than he ever did in the six years of appearing on cable news programs and campaign commercials. This doesn’t mean I would vote for the man; my politics still are not his politics. However, I do believe that Romney believed that his plan for the country was the best plan for the country, and even though it cost him the election, the most important members of his political team were his wife and kids. What’s not to respect about that?