Sundance 2014 Review: ‘Mitt’ Humanizes and Illuminates That One Time Your Goofy Dad Ran for President
“What do you think you say in a concession speech?”
Greg Whiteley’s illuminating and often funny Mitt opens on Election Night 2012, in one of many nondescript hotel rooms viewers will become acquainted with as the insider documentary winds on, as the Romney family grapples with the news that their patriarch will not be winning the presidency tonight (or, if they are to be believed when it comes to Romney’s political career, ever). Mitt Romney calmly accepts the news while reclining on a couch, his brow furrowed as he attempts to come up with a concession speech. “What do you think you say in a concession speech?” he asks and, distracted and dismayed, no one can give him an answer.
Whiteley’s film then zings back six years, as the Romneys gather in similar style to, as ever, discuss Mitt’s political choices. Romney has long stood on a platform that hinges on the value and importance of family, and while his dedication to his family has never really been in question, Mitt casts the as Romneys a warm, funny, relatable clan. When Mitt arranges his family around him as the film begins to unfold, asking for their opinion on whether or not he should run for the presidency in 2008, it’s a believable little glimpse inside their lives and relationships. Mostly unconcerned with the political aspect of Romney’s life and campaign, Mitt instead focuses on the man, his family, and the emotional toll of his work.
Filmed over the course of both of Romney’s presidential campaigns (including the cut-short 2008 run and the full-throttle 2012 attempt), Whiteley’s access to his subject and his family (all of the Romney sons and their families show up, with Josh Romney often taking center stage) is compelling, and the clan frequently seems to forget he’s present and filming. The camera work is not always especially refined or clean, but the content that it depicts is worth it, so most technical glitches are forgivable. Moreover, despite how much time Whiteley has tasked himself with depicting, the film clips right along and has a consistently strong energy.
Romney, who often appears in public seeming a bit stiff and practiced, instead scans in the film as a basically pretty regular (albeit extremely wealthy and privileged) guy, a doofy dad who loves his family and is compelled to make them proud. Mitt remains positive throughout the film, and he seems to be the most pragmatic and even-keeled member of his family (the boys sometimes seem frustrated, and wife Ann Romney is understandably emotional throughout). He’s also just kind of silly – trying to iron a shirt that’s still on his buddy, quoting O Brother, Where Art Thou? – and the film humanizes him in a way that his campaign never did, and even viewers who don’t agree with his political leanings will find something to like about him as a person.
If Whiteley is aiming to portray his subject as a relatable dude, he absolutely succeeds, though the film’s apparent disinterest in showing outsider perspective robs it from feeling as full-bodied as it could. Mitt’s success in humanizing a private and divisive man is, however, admirable – and that’s never more clear than when Romney’s 2008 running mate, Paul Ryan, pops up late in the game (with approximately a minute of screentime), every second feeling still more fake and cheesy, making Mitt seem only more human and compelling.
The Upside: Humanizes and illuminates the Romney clan, provides an insider look at the inner workings of a political campaign, a seemingly apolitical look that’s more concerned with the personal side of a political man, moves along with a good energy.
The Downside: Despite its admirably apolitical stance, the film could benefit from a little more outsider perspective to really round out its subject matter.
On the Side: Mitt will be available to stream on Netflix on January 24th.