Mitt: Sundance Review

Mitt Romney Concession Speech - H 2012
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Mitt Romney Concession Speech - H 2012

Sympathetic portrait humanizes a man many voters saw as a robotic aristocrat.

Director Greg Whiteley follows Mitt Romney and his family through two Presidential campaigns.

Sundance may be viewed by outsiders of a certain stripe as a haven for lefty aesthetes who live in something other than the "real" world. But today the fest offers Americans a doc that achieves in an hour and a half something Republicans wanted desperately to do throughout 2012 -- it makes Mitt Romney human, even lovable. Greg Whiteley's Mitt, by viewing two election cycles exclusively through the Romney family's eyes, does for the candidate what Sundance films more regularly do for the poor, the disenfranchised, and the very, very quirky: It puts us in his shoes and reminds us how much we have in common. Its January 24 debut on Netflix should generate enthusiastic word-of-mouth, and it wouldn't be a bad film to revisit in the heat of 2016.

The doc opens on election night 2012, as a moist-eyed Mitt asks his family and advisers, "what do you think you say in a concession speech?" If liberal viewers immediately assume this means he's a self-deluded man who is only now contemplating the possibility of defeat, they'll spend much of the next 91 minutes learning they were wrong. Perhaps, if they're reflective, they'll think a bit about how an out-of-context sentence -- this one, or any of the gotcha sound bites that emerge during political campaigns -- can mislead us into thinking we know someone's heart.

Whitely jumps back to a time before Romney's 2008 bid for the Republican nomination. He, wife Ann, and their adult children sit around the living room, making lists of the pros and cons of Dad running for office. There are lots of cons, which Romney duly notes on a legal pad, but the family also seems earnest in its willingness to support an important effort they feel will cost them on a personal level.

(And now the cynic speaks. If the decision weren't already pretty well made, why was a documentarian in the room?)

Soon, Romney's speaking to potential donors, admitting that he's been studying what happens to failed Presidential candidates and isn't thrilled about that scenario. Early days of the primary campaign, with cable news running segments like "Who Is Mitt Romney?," suggest he might not even earn the chance to join the Dukakises and Doles of the world.

Whiteley almost never shows the candidate huddling with the paid advisors who turned him into a viable contender in 2008. But we see enough of the mechanics of campaigning to sympathize with a man who felt the media and opponents drew a shallow caricature of who he was -- "The flipping Mormon" -- and calmly sought ways to correct that perception. Well before this effort fails, family members are seen telling the camera "never again" -- if they don't get their man to the White House in 2008, it's not worth the heartache to try in 2012.

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That resolution didn't stick, of course, and Whiteley breezes through what turned out to be a successful primary campaign the next time around. He focuses instead on the debates between Romney and Barack Obama, giving us a very intimate view of pre-fight stress, elation after the success of the first debate, and jitters when the second was declared a tie.

What is evident here that was rarely seen by the public is the candidate's easy sense of humor and an endearing willingness to envision his failure. Between the two campaigns, the film shows us Romney doing things that don't jibe with our image of him: He swaddles himself in blankets and gets some shuteye on the floor of an airliner; he picks up garbage on a hotel balcony when he has more important things to do; he finds fault with the cuff of a dress shirt and tries to iron it himself -- while still wearing it. ("Ouch. Ouch," he says, while his kids make fun of the effort.)

Like Alexandra Pelosi's Journeys With George, Mitt is a film that allows a politician's ideological enemies to laugh with him and enjoy some time in his company. But while Journeys captured George W. Bush's ability to effectively charm people he'd ignore as soon as he didn't need them (the go-along journalists covering his campaign); Mitt humanizes a man who was never nearly as good with his target audience as he was with his family. Wherever you stand on the political spectrum, it's hard not to conclude the electorate did the man a favor by sending him back to those who love him.

Production Company: One Potato Productions

Director: Greg Whiteley

Producers: Adam Leibowitz, Erin Whiteley, Greg Whiteley

Executive producers: Seth Lewis Gordon, Fall Newsom, Terry Newsom, John Kingston, Jean Kingston, Lisa Nishimura, Adam Del Deo

Director of photography: Greg Whiteley

Music: Perrin Cloutier

Editor: Greg Whiteley, Adam Ridley

Sales: Liesl Copland, WME Global

No rating, 91 minutes