Another Side Of Mitt Romney Showcased In Netflix Documentary

Mitt Romney in the Netflix documentary "Mitt." (Courtesy, Netflix)
Mitt Romney in the Netflix documentary "Mitt." (Courtesy, Netflix)

PARK CITY, Utah — Who would have thought former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney could become the poster boy for failure, especially in the Mormon-friendly territory of Utah?

The Sundance Film Festival programmers did. In fact in this 30th year of the storied festival, an entire day was set aside to celebrate failure. (The workshops and panels were actually celebrating failure as "essential to risk-taking, innovation and the creative process.") Perhaps with that in mind, Mitt and Ann Romney made an unexpected appearance at the festival’s Jan. 17 premiere of “Mitt,” the new documentary about his two unsuccessful presidential bids.

According to The Salt Lake Tribune, "Way too much reality" was Romney’s reaction to the film.

The trailer offers a taste of what he means:

“Mitt” screened several times throughout the week (the festival runs through Jan. 26) and makes its Internet broadcast premiere on Netflix Friday. By adding “Mitt” as its second original documentary, Netflix joins the ranks of the longstanding documentary division at HBO and newcomer CNN Films. The three companies presented a combined 10 of the 39 documentaries in this year’s U.S., World Cinema and Documentary Premieres sections.

Mitt wasn’t spotted on other red carpets but his face was on movie posters and postcards all over town. “Whatever side you’re on, see another side,” reads the tagline. The visage is of a changed man with a shock of tousled, Tom Brady-like hair. That’s Tom Brady off the field.

It’s fitting since “Mitt” is not about strategy; rather it loosens the tie of the far more guarded world of family Romney. There are a lot of them (a brother, five sons, their spouses and kids), and they’re as enviable and attractive as ever, inspiring silly lists like the 10 hottest Josh Romney moments. This is a family that builds its own sled ramps then gathers by the fireplace to hash out the pros and cons of a Romney presidency.

There’s even a scene where Ann musses Mitt’s perfect hair, sealing the deal that that the performance, at least that day, was over.

Mitt Romney in a scene from the documentary, "Mitt." (Courtesy Netflix)
Mitt Romney in a scene from the documentary, "Mitt." (Courtesy Netflix)

Director Greg Whiteley started the project on Christmas Eve in 2006 and followed the family in and out of hotel rooms, airport hangars and debate rehearsals until Election Day 2012. “Mitt” achieves the on-its-sleeve goal to humanize Romney, but there are noticeable omissions. One could forget about running-mate Paul Ryan altogether. His name never comes up. He makes a split-second cameo near the film’s end.

Meanwhile Ann has a few key bits: leading the family in prayer, advising Mitt to focus on his conviction before his first debate with President Obama, laughing uproariously when her son asks to be slapped and is, twice. She told The Salt Lake Tribune that was her favorite scene.

Opinion writers have already combed through transcripts from the film’s final 20 minutes, which take place in the Boston hotel as 2012 election results trickle in. When Romney scans the room and wonders, "So what do you think you say in a concession speech?" there have been enough flashes of candor over the condensed six years to suggest that he wouldn’t ask if he didn’t want to know.

But at this stage, there’s not much left in their tank.

It may surprise voters to learn that Romney is the kind of man who drafted the speech off the cuff. Though some will decide he did so out of denial or arrogance (actors have been skating by similarly this awards season), in an earlier scene he admits exhaustion over “faking it” at events.

He also bemoans a shift from what he considers a dignified debate format of question and answer into something intended to be more casual. Irritated, Romney predicts it will be a “scrum.” “The dining room conversation is for members of a family,” he argues. “These are all people competing for the same job.”

Occasions of his ruffled feathers could be read as they were in both campaigns: Here’s an out of touch, wooden embodiment of privilege. But “Mitt” has something else to say. Here’s a man who maintains a deep reverence for his father’s (George Romney) legacy and is befuddled by a political process that is messier, and possibly more contradictory, than he is. As far as “Mitt” is concerned, the electoral machine has convinced itself it’s a family-style picnic when in truth it’s an endless game of charades.

Now, whose failure is that?

Erin Trahan edits The Independent, an online magazine about independent film, and moderates the winter 2014 series of The DocYard.

More From Sundance

‘Whitey’ — A Film With A Bit of Gray From Sundance


More from WBUR

Listen Live