Following Romney from his first family meeting in 2006 to his defeat in November 2012, the 90-minute inside look isn’t without its share of expected silliness and self-aggrandizement. There are intimate moments seen at his many homes. Jokes are made about private planes. Romney interrupts an otherwise resonant anecdote to mention his friendship with “Papa John, you know, of Papa John’s.” In the whole documentary, only two black people are seen speaking on screen. One is the president.
Footage of the candidate bumping a hot iron into his arm while mumbling “ouch” over and over has become an online hit and an apt metaphor for the whole Mitt Romney experience. No doubt: If “Mitt” were a drinking game for cynical leftists, 47% ABV shots might prove fatal.
But liberal bias confirmation isn’t the animating spirit of “Mitt.” True to the hype, filmmaker Greg Whiteley humanizes Romney, showing the family man in a softer light than the glare of campaign flashbulbs could ever allow the candidate. The result is an “if only” kind of movie that encourages viewers to look at Romney through a new lens -- not the “flipping Mormon” of 2008 or the robotic aristocrat of 2012 -- and ask what could have been if we’d elected him president instead of Obama.
After watching “Mitt,” it is impossible to doubt that Romney has a profound love for his family, one reflected in their equally charming love for him. It is impossible to doubt -- however gratuitous the endless prayer scenes may be -- that Romney’s Mormonism is humble and sincere.
Most striking, it is impossible to deny that Romney is a shockingly self-aware man, one far more perceptive of nuance -- in public life, in others, in himself -- than he ever appeared to voters. From Romney summing up the political landscape more shrewdly than most pundits to a sequence in which he honestly interrogates his own privilege relative to his father, one comes away with the unshakable feeling that we as a country underestimated Romney’s empathy and curiosity.
If provoking that sentiment was the goal here -- and I’m guessing it was -- then I’ll concede: point proven.
But if the larger goal of “Mitt” was to make viewers regret their harsh judgments, to second-guess the votes they cast, then Whiteley’s effort fails. If anything, it underscores for me that the right candidate won in 2012. That’s not in spite of the movie’s humanizing effort but because of it.
This behind-the-scenes look at Romney still does not totally undo the man we saw on the campaign trail. It does not erase the tone-deaf plutocrat whose apparent political instincts would make Michael Dukakis weep. Remember: Romney advocated for the austere Paul Ryan budget, and his position that undocumented immigrants should “self-deport” was, he explained, a “compassionate approach.” And he did make those 47% comments.
It turns out he was self-aware the whole time? That he knew his limitations? He was able to articulate his own privilege, acknowledging that everything in life was handed to him in a way that makes even his relatively lucky father seem disadvantaged by comparison?
And yet he still ran that campaign?
At least out-of-touch Romney was a victim of his own blindness. Now you’re telling us he knew the score, but he just couldn’t help himself? That deserves pity, sure, but not “if-we-could-go-back” votes. Ignorance is one thing, but somebody who can’t help their ineptitude despite being able to correctly identify the problem is the last person you want in the White House.
“Mitt” humanizes Romney, but it shows us more clearly than ever why he was not fit to be president. For that, it is valuable.
It also reminds us of something deeper. In dispelling our sense of Robot Romney, Heartless Corporate Criminal Mastermind, “Mitt” shows us that the greatest danger to a more perfect union doesn’t come from caricatures of cackling villains. It comes from good men. It comes from family men, the kind who love their wives and kids and dogs. It comes from honest men, who are persuaded of their own intentions, who do not lack in wit or self-awareness, and yet despite all this are so blinded by privilege and corrosive ideology that -- if given power -- they would inflict a brutal austerity upon the body politic, most punishing to the very least among us. Danger comes from human frailty and error.
The heroes look just like the villains -- that’s the scary part of democratic life. Romney is human. He always was. That’s the lesson “Mitt” teaches us most clearly.
[Update on Jan. 31 at 9:46 p.m.: An earlier version of this post stated that Mitt Romney only spoke to one black person during "Mitt." He in fact speaks to two black people.]
Emmett Rensin is an author, essayist and political activist in Chicago. His previous work has appeared in USA Today, Salon and the Los Angeles Review of Books. Follow him on Twitter @revemmettrensin.