Although my colleagues who cover politics rushed last week to unwrap the Netflix documentary “Mitt” like kids who never get to have a birthday party, I remain unconvinced that the rest of us ever clamored for an inside, intimate portrait of the Republican who lost the 2012 presidential election. When the voters speak, they say a number of things, and all along they seemed to say pretty clearly — in both the 2008 primaries and the 2012 race — that Mitt Romney isn't anyone's idea of must-see TV.
Even people with Romney stickers still clinging to their bumpers will fidget through the stultifying middle chunk of director Greg Whiteley's sympathetically observant but journalistically incurious “Mitt,” the product of six years of friendly, unfettered access to Romney and his family.
The film, which is available for streaming via Netflix beginning Friday afternoon, is a departure from similar, wonkier projects that have taken us into campaign war rooms and built their stories around the political machinery in action. “Mitt” is more about a tight-knit family that has been variously affected by a loved one's incurable disease — in this case, the husband/father's addiction to running for office — and how they bravely cope with an onslaught of related symptoms, mostly having to do with how misunderstood he is.
“Mitt,” therefore, is barely a documentary about politics and is instead an up-close look at the beneficial uses of group delusion, especially if one dreams of living in the White House.
The daunting task here is how to winnow six years of film into a meaningful 90-minute portrait. Whiteley's solution is fairly bold: He has neatly excised the idea that the Romney presidential campaign involved the work of a staff.
Instead, like some recent television dramas (“Political Animals” comes to mind) and a persistent notion about the Kennedys, “Mitt” suggests that the familial circle is innermost and strategically savviest, calling the shots every step of the way. The film opens in late 2006, as Mitt and his wife, Ann, sit in a cozy living room and poll their adult sons and daughters-in-law about whether or not Dad should seek the Republican nomination. It's a crucial moment, in which the Romneys could have avoided so much distastefully hard work and pain. Together they chose pain.
From that point on, viewers are never meant to forget how awful it is to run for president. Life with the Romney clan is warm and inviting. There is constant snacking. Jokes abound; conversations meander; grandchildren cavort. It's nice except for all the complaining.
The first half hour follows the 2008 primary season, which, if nothing else, establishes the fatal flaw in any Romney campaign: He seems to know what he's running against, but he's not terribly convincing in describing what he's for — or getting a filmmaker to include it in the final edit. Fairly soon he's out of the race — and free and rich enough to do whatever he likes. But the Romneys are caught up in yet another presidential race, lured either by the tantalizingly inept field of 2012 GOP hopefuls or pushed into the fray by the hand of God.
Ann Romney suffers especially on her husband's behalf, consoled only by her horses. “These aren't tears of sorrow, these are tears of gratitude,” she unconvincingly informs the gang, stressed out before her husband goes off into debate. Backstage, the smile disappears and she joins Romney's devoted sons (who, if memory serves, are named Tagg, Not-Tagg, Almost-Tagg, Probably-Not-Tagg and Definitely-Not-Tagg) in grimly enumerating the ways the media, other Republicans and the voting public have failed to see Dad's obvious brilliance. (From what we are shown, Mitt Romney's best and most realistic critic is often Mitt Romney, but just when he's about to arrive a moment of clarity and purpose, his family reassures him that he's perfect as is.)
The Romneys we see here are alien creatures visiting a reality-TV planet; none of their responses or actions seem quite like all the other humans who have allowed a camera to follow their daily lives. Perhaps because they can never be comfortable with a camera, even if it sticks around for six years, the Romney Bunch seethes with the friendliest sort of outrage and exasperation; they dread every last minute of the race, but it's a fun and upbeat sort of dread. They'd slouch and moan and chain-smoke if only they knew how. Instead, you never saw such hale and optimistic expressions of pain; even their gallows humor lacks a sharp blade.
Thus, what seemed like such exciting inside access turns out to be more of a sleep aid than a documentary. At some point, “Mitt” might have been better served if, as a fly on the wall, Whiteley had done a little more buzzing — such as the moment he asks one of the Romney sons (Not-Tagg, I think), about what it's like to see his father endure the rigors of stumping, debating, campaigning. Not-Tagg, who is exhausted at the end of another day, reflexively launches into spin. Whiteley then presses him for “the translation” — as in, what does he really want to say?
Less guardedly, Not-Tagg starts over: “[People] say, 'Why can't we just get someone good to run for president?' And this is why. This is why you don't get good people running for president. What better guy is there than my dad? . . . We're in this and you just get beat up constantly. [It's] awful.”
When Election Day at last arrives (a caption in the version of “Mitt” I've watched informs us that this was Nov. 7, 2012, but for sticklers about fact, it was Nov. 6), the Romneys calmly but bitterly face the news that Americans could not see what the family saw so clearly.
“Mitt” is best in its final moments, as the candidate and his relieved wife accept their last ride home from the Secret Service, capturing that moment when they are finally alone and have nothing to do but sit quietly and think about how much it hurts. You can almost sense the work beginning anew. Starting with this film.
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“Mitt” (92 minutes) available for streaming beginning Friday at 2 p.m. on Netflix.