Editor’s Note: Mitt is now available on Netflix
There’s a moment in the midst of Mitt, Greg Whiteley’s behind-the-scenes look at the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns of the former Massachusetts governor, where his wife Anne chuckles to the camera: “We’re messing his hair”. It might well be a succinct statement of the movie itself, whose poster bears an extreme close-up of that familiar face with the locks atop defiantly unkempt. This documentary—Netflix’s third, after The Short Game and The Square—is iconoclastic in only the most superficial of ways, less a deconstruction of the public figure at its heart than a calculated reconstruction in a more private sphere, free from the predilections of our political perspectives. It’s a position evidenced well in the tagline’s non-partisan sentiment: “Whatever side you’re on, see another side”.
This documentary is iconoclastic in only the most superficial of ways, less a deconstruction of the public figure at its heart than a calculated reconstruction in a more private sphere, free from the predilections of our political perspectives
“Who is Mitt Romney?” asks a broadcast news banner from the run-up to his 2008 campaign in the film’s opening moments, prefacing a breezy vox populi showcasing the candidate’s unfamiliarity to his would-be electorate. Taken together with the title of the piece, which foregoes the impersonality of surname address, Whiteley’s analytical approach—hinged on an attuned editorial rhythm—is clear: “Romney” is a presence we may know well; Mitt is a man quite alien to us all. Character study, then, is the name of the game as the six year span of Whiteley’s shooting gives us unprecedented access to the man behind the campaign in his most intimate of moments, be they gathered in prayer with his extended family or fitfully ironing out the crease in a tux he’s wearing.
That the movie opens on the scene of the Romneys gathered to consider the content of their concession speech is telling; only ever in such touchstone moments does Whiteley grant us any image of the wider political picture. His interest is only in the man: the genial, intelligently, improbably amusing man, quick to self-deprecating humour and keen to admit it when the battle is lost. “The flipping Mormon,” he sighs in one of the many little moments we see him decry the very public image our unfiltered access here refutes; it’s tempting to wonder, in watching Mitt, what the outcome in 2012 might have been had his campaign ever allowed him to seem this human.
Yet as much as Whiteley may manage to achieve this intriguing effect, his portrait of Romney emerges precisely as restricted as that he sets out to subvert
And that, in the end, is the essence of the film, doing for Romney’s personality what its poster does for his hair: presenting the reality free from the tight control a PR-conscious campaign imposes. Few could claim, when the election results roll in and the outcome becomes increasingly evident, not to feel at least a little sorry for the man—the man, if not the politician—who potters about his hotel suite cleaning after his grandkids and rescuing rubbish from the breezy balcony. Yet as much as Whiteley may manage to achieve this intriguing effect, his portrait of Romney emerges precisely as restricted as that he sets out to subvert; here we may have a belated glimpse of the person beneath the policies, but the real man lies in a pairing of the two.
It’s interesting to consider Mitt in the context of Netflix’s growing catalogue of “original” documentaries—the quotation marks are necessary; these are acquisitions rather than commissions—and the manner in which they engage their audience. Whiteley’s film is far more Short Game than Square, an affable human interest piece that forgoes engagement with the more difficult political particularities of its subject in order to emphasise emotion above all. And where that might be the outcome Netflix’s sacred viewership data has told them its customers desire, what’s best for the audience—in this case at least—isn’t best for the movie. In ignoring an essential part of the picture, it’s not just the political fence Mitt winds up straddling.
[notification type=”star”]60/100 ~ OKAY. In ignoring an essential part of the picture, it’s not just the political fence Mitt winds up straddling.[/notification]