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'Mitt' gets real: Documentary shows another side of Romney


“Mitt,” the documentary by Utah filmmaker Greg Whiteley about the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, is worth watching for the simple fact that viewers get access to a side of Mitt Romney most have never seen.

The movie, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival Friday and is set to be released to the public next Friday through Netflix, lets viewers inside the guarded inner circle of the Romney family during critical moments of Romney’s presidential runs in 2008 and 2012. The film, however, inexplicably fast-forwards through the 2012 Republican primary. It’s not clear if the filmmaker, who gained the trust of Romney's son Tagg, was not with Romney at that point, if it was cut for time, or if it was deliberate. (The filmmaker was not made available by Netflix to answer that question.)

One does get the sense that despite many scenes of frank family conversations, the film was carefully edited and viewers do not get the full picture of an independent lens. Wonder what Romney thought of the Clint Eastwood stunt at the Republican National Convention? Keep wondering.

But what viewers do see of the man, who could have been president, is someone clear-eyed, self-deprecating, and the most realistic and rational person in the room – if rigid and formal, even in his down time. 

Public vs. Private Romney

The divide between what the public saw of Romney during his two presidential runs and how he appears in private is clear in the film. In private, Romney was free with hugs for family, even rolling in the snow (with duct-taped gloves) and playing with his grandchildren (though he unflinchingly pushed one of them down a hill on a sled even though the child expressed reluctance and some fear). 

Throughout the movie, though, Romney also displayed a healthy dose of self-doubt. Far from the automaton stereotype lampooned by Democrats, Romney showed himself in private to be humble, witty, sarcastic, and real; he was respectful of President Barack Obama, touting the president’s debating skills, while questioning his own. Before one of the debates, Romney even noted the awkwardness of having to be critical of a president. And it is, like he said before the second town hall debate in the film, hard to go on stage to debate another person in front of millions of people on a wide menu of issues that candidates are expected to be expert in.

His self-doubt made it hard not to see him as vulnerable – like anyone else.

Romney was also acutely aware of his own flaws. Frustrated by his prospects in 2008, he questioned how he would get past the stereotype of the “Flipping Mormon,” and if he doesn’t, “then I’m a flawed candidate,” he said in the movie.

‘I love the smell’ of burning leaves

On the campaign trail, Romney often had a hard time relating and making small talk, and that, too, came through in the movie. One scene summed up some of his awkwardness as a campaigner. It was Election Day 2012, and the campaign decided to make a couple of final stops — in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

At a Wendy’s fast-food restaurant in Cleveland, a man approached to say hello. Romney smiled, enthusiastically waved, walked over, and shook hands.

The man told him that on this fall day he had been “blowing leaves” and said Romney “brought the sunshine to Cleveland, Ohio.”

Romney replied by saying, “You’re blowing leaves today? Oh, it’s a good day when the sun’s shining. I love – the leaves when it’s – sun shine onto it. Now, when I was a boy we used to burn the leaves. They don’t do that anymore, of course.”

“No, no,” the man said.

Romney went on. “So, we used to put them in front of the street, you know, and burn them, and then smoke – I love the smell.”

Even after nearly five years of campaigning and previously being a governor, a job for which he also had to campaign and meet and talk to people, he still didn’t quite know how to make small talk with strangers.

‘Mr. Fly Private’

It wasn’t just style where his deficiencies as a candidate came through in the movie. Throughout the documentary, Romney had a clear focus on business – small businesses, in particular, and how they were, in his belief, being overtaxed by government. Time and again, he came back to this point, even after debates.

Mitt Romney, with his son Tagg at left and his wife, Ann, at right, addresses supporters in Manchester on Jan. 10, 2012 after winning New Hampshire's primary.
Mitt Romney, with his son Tagg at left and his wife, Ann, at right, addresses supporters in Manchester on Jan. 10, 2012 after winning New Hampshire's primary.Emmanuel Dunand / AFP - Getty Images file

But it is also remarkable what Romney and his family didn't do or talk about – notably health care, especially given President Obama’s controversial health-care law and Romney’s own deep involvement in passing a comprehensive bill in Massachusetts. Remember, in his official gubernatorial portrait, Romney is pictured with the bill.

There also wasn't any sense from the movie that the Romneys think about how the other side lives. After the 2012 loss, in a speech to campaign staffers, he thanked them for their hard work, especially, he said, because the party is “Southern, evangelical, and populist,” and he’s “Northern, Mormon, and rich.”

That got a healthy round of laughs, and it is somewhat stunning that he was able to get through the primary with those facts. But looking back on the 90 minutes of the film, it is striking that there were zero conversations about the poor, the less well-off, and those struggling who didn't own businesses.

This is a sheltered, moneyed world the Romneys live in. At one point in the movie, after the second debate, Romney and son Tagg made a hard pivot from talking about the moderation of the debate, to whether there was food in a Delta terminal where shuttles fly to Boston. Romney believed there was. Tagg, on the other hand, insisted there was not.

In wanting stridently to prove his point, Tagg let slip this phrase to criticize his dad: “Mr. Fly Private.”

Tagg then pulled up a map on his mobile phone of the terminal and proved there was no food. Romney, defeated, concluded the terminal must have changed. Tagg rejoiced in proving his dad wrong, while his father stared ahead blankly.

A family affair

Tagg was clearly the most into politics of any of the family members. It’s not impossible to see him running for public office in the future. But the family member who arguably came across as having the best political acumen was Josh.

After the second debate, Josh was critical of whoever may have prepped his father on what the president said and didn’t say in the Rose Garden following the attack in Benghazi. He was often far less rosy than other members of his family on how his father, the patriarch, was doing.

In an early scene of the movie, the family was sitting around during Christmas in 2006 at their Park City, Utah, home trying to decide whether Romney should run. Josh’s wife, holding an infant child, chimed in and said, “I think the con would be that you’d be the president.”

As Romney scribbled notes, Josh backed up his wife. “Talk about stress,” he said. “You’d be bald in about a month.”

Tagg, on the other hand, strongly believed his father should run. “You have an opportunity now as a result of so many things that were beyond your control to run that it would be a shame not to at least try,” Tagg said, before adding, “I think you have a duty to your country and to God to see what comes of it.” 

All the while, Ann Romney seemed skeptical. Throughout the movie, she appeared to absorb much of the criticism that came her husband’s way, more so than Romney himself. It was clear in the film she does not enjoy politics. She did not like seeing her husband endure criticism, especially as she expressed disbelief that so many in the country just didn't get how hard it is (for businesses) out there. 

The clear-eyed skeptic

Contrary to reporting that Romney thought he was going to win going into Election Day, that was not at all clear. He seemed skeptical. In fact, throughout the film, he delivered a healthy dose of skepticism about his prospects to his family and political team. (There was not much interaction shown in the film with Romney’s political aides, perhaps a sign the filmmaker was not allowed access to those conversations and characters.) 

Romney noted that he talked to a radio host in Cleveland who said lines in suburban polling places were longer than in 2008. “Interesting,” he said, but Romney never indicated anything like, “I think we’re going to win this thing.”

Later, as it’s became clear Romney wasn’t going to win, the film revealed he wanted to concede earlier than most of the rest of his political team and family, many of whom were urging him not to give up, and not to go out too soon, “like Al Gore.”

But in reality, Romney’s prospects were nothing like Gore’s. Gore won the popular vote in the 2000 presidential election and came within 537 votes of winning Florida and the presidency. This was not the case with Romney. He lost the popular vote by almost five million votes and nearly every swing state, including Florida. 

As it became clear Romney was going to lose Ohio, he began writing a concession speech and wanted to deliver it – despite Campaign Manager Matt Roades having said he talked with Karl Rove, the former George W. Bush adviser, who at the time was making a head-scratching argument on Fox that Romney still had a plausible chance of winning the Buckeye State. 

Romney wasn’t buying it. Others continued to press him to wait, but when his son Craig noted that he was still up in the popular vote, a clear-eyed Romney retorted, “Yeah, well, we haven’t gotten California yet.”