Mitt on Netflix: A knight errant in an age of political cynicism

A new documentary offers a behind-the-scenes look at Mitt Romney's ill-fated presidential campaigns

Mitt and Ann Romney
(Image credit: (Al Bello/Getty Images))

When we think of that rarest figure in American politics — a man of integrity — Mitt Romney does not usually leap to mind. The biggest knock against the two-time presidential candidate is that he is a flip-flopper, his convictions as flimsy as the thousands of lawn signs that bore his name in 2008 and 2012. It's a reputation that earned him the eternal distrust of a Republican base in search of a genuine conservative, as well as Democrats unpersuaded by this "severely conservative" former governor's attempts to tack to the center.

Indeed, Mitt Romney seemed to transcend mere two-facedness — on issues ranging from abortion to health care — to achieve new heights of cynicism. There were his grinning reassurances that his budget math made sense when it clearly didn't; the mindless cant about American greatness that had supposedly been undermined by President Obama's non-existent "apology tour"; the celerity with which his campaign politicized the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, plunging the incident into a funhouse of partisan mirrors from which the truth has yet to emerge; and his belief to the very end that he would be the 45th president of the United States, displaying disdain for an objective reality that was apparent to everyone outside Fox News.

He seemed to be the perfect politician for the Politico era, more than willing to ignore or twist facts to creative narrative arcs out of thin air that would bridge his march to the White House. And so when news emerged that Netflix would stream a behind-the-scenes look at his two campaigns, it was easy to imagine that the real Mitt Romney would be like the character Selina Meyer in the HBO series Veep: Comically oblivious, nakedly ambitious, surrounded by a coterie of incompetent toadies.

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But the Mitt Romney that emerges from this fascinating, sympathetic documentary is so much more than that. He is both self-aware and clueless, caring and indifferent, likable but hardly magnetic. His slippery reputation made him, in his own words, a "flawed candidate" — and yet in a modest way, he also represents an antidote to the cynicism that has poisoned American politics.

The director Greg Whiteley (New York Doll) was given a remarkable degree of access to the candidate. One of the first scenes depicts the Romney clan in 2006 sitting around the living room discussing whether he should make a presidential run. The camera work is raw, almost like a home video; the viewer feels like he is among Mitt, Ann, and their sons and daughters-in-law as they go over the pros and cons. "The country may think of you as a laughingstock," Tagg Romney says in a prescient moment. "But we'll know the truth."

The film then tracks the Romneys as they undergo a brutal 2008 primary that sees Mitt savaged by his opponents, led by a venomous John McCain. After a strange lacuna that skips the 2012 primary — and a parade of horribles that included Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, and Michele Bachmann — we pick up again in the 2012 general election, in which Mitt triumphs spectacularly in the first debate against Obama, only to realize on Election Day that he has come up short.

Throughout it all, Whiteley maintains the intimacy of that scene in 2006, the camera an up-close-and-personal presence in the characterless spaces that serve as the settings for Mitt's presidential run: Hotel suites, green rooms, airplane cabins, SUVs. We see Mitt the neatnik, fretfully picking up trash wherever he sees it; Mitt the goofball, ironing his cuffs while he's wearing them; Mitt the clear-eyed wit, describing his personal political brand as the "flipping Mormon."

At no point does Mitt turn to the camera to reveal the cold, calculating Francis Urquhart we presume lurks within every politician; it often seems as if the only difference between Mitt's public and private personas is a little makeup and lighting, which is refreshing to say the least. Indeed, the most damning words to come out of his mouth are the infamous 47 percent remarks, which sound almost shocking coming from the unfailingly gracious man we get to know in Whiteley's footage.

Above all, we see Mitt the patriarch, surrounded by an inner circle almost exclusively limited to his family. We get brief glimpses of Stuart Stevens, Eric Fehrnstrom, and the other political operatives who ran his campaign, but they are distant satellites compared to the tight orbit composed of Ann and the boys. They are his cheerleaders, his critics, and his main strategists — they are the nucleus of his presidential bid.

They are also living reminders that Mitt has sacrificed much health and happiness in pursuing a prize that no one even seems to want. "There's a lot of downside to winning," Josh Romney says at one point. "Never again," Ann vows after Mitt throws in the towel in 2008.

And yet there they are in 2012, going through the hell of another presidential race. Why does Mitt do it? This is the question that hangs over the movie — as it did his campaign. Unlike so many in Washington, he is not impressed by the trappings of power. While he is occasionally caught glancing at his Ken doll hair in the mirror, he is no egomaniac. He has a generally conservative worldview, but he is obviously not an ideological warrior. And he displays a sincere and eminently sane desire to remain a private citizen and live outside the limelight.

The movie subtly advances at least a few theories, one of which was put forth during the campaign to much scoffing in the media. It goes something like this: He never even wanted to run, but a sense of duty — to God and country — compelled him to enter the race because only his unique combination of talent and experience could save America from a disastrous course. "Our desires in doing this are pure," intones one of Mitt's daughters-in-law during an intense session of group prayer, which comes off as both declaration and fervent wish.

Depending on where you stand, this motivation, with its overtones of self-sacrifice and magnanimity, could be interpreted as either noble or wildly vainglorious. And there is plenty of fodder in this movie for Mitt's critics, who will no doubt note his deep respect for Papa John of Papa John's Pizza and his unwillingness to grapple with the very real charges of duplicity that have dogged his political career. But in the face of controversies like Bridgegate and the rolling farce that is Congress, it is nice to think that chivalric notions of honor and duty still have a role to play in politics — even if they are of the misguided variety.

Mitt will premiere on Netflix on Jan. 24. Watch the trailer here.

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