SALT LAKE CITY – A few hours earlier, Mitt Romney was marveling at his big crowds and chewing over lines in his victory speech. But now, in a Boston hotel suite, the camera zooms in on a roomful of family and advisers. The would-be president is on the couch, an iPad on his lap, and asking, So what do you think you say in a concession speech?
His wife, Ann, arrives and sits down next to him. What’s going on?
We’re writing a concession speech, Mitt says.
It’s finished? she asks.
My time on the stage is over, guys, the Republican nominee says.
Ann stares ahead, stricken. Their sons are in disbelief. The grandkids are crying. The nation, the Romneys are learning, had rejected them.
The dramatic collapse of Romney’s six-year quest for the presidency is revealed in a new documentary, MITT, a rare, intimate look into how a family endures the 24/7 psycho-drama that is a modern U.S. presidential campaign.
The film, which premiered Friday night as part of the Sundance Film Festival and will be available on Netflix starting Friday, provides a stark contrast to the stilted, robotic caricature of Romney the politician.
It shows him as a three-dimensional figure – devoted to the Mormon faith that he played down on the campaign trail, capable of flashes of raw emotion and often harboring doubts about his political abilities.
The documentary captures the Romney family in moments of hopeful prayer and tearful anguish. There are glimmers of joy and celebration, but more often there are fatigue and frustration. How many more debates do I have to go to? Mitt blurts out at one point.
Filmmaker Greg Whiteley gained extraordinary access to the Romneys, capturing them during private moments – in hotel rooms, vans, planes, hallways and elevators – at critical junctures of Romney’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns.
In 2009, after viewing Whiteley’s footage from the first campaign, Romney’s campaign advisers would not allow him to release the film. But now that Romney has run his last campaign, the family gave Whiteley its blessing. Romney and his family convened Friday night in Salt Lake City at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center for the film’s first public screening.
The documentary reveals a human, sometimes playful side of Romney that his campaign largely kept buttoned up. He laughs and he cries. He kneels down to pray and he comforts his crying wife in his lap. He calls his large extended family the gopher village and scoops up his grandchildren in monster hugs.
He goes sledding wearing gloves held together with duct tape, and he places a hot iron to his wrist to straighten out his tuxedo shirt cuff. He bickers with son Tagg about whether the Delta Shuttle terminal at New York’s LaGuardia Airport contains a large food court. (Tagg was right; it does not.) As his face is applied with television makeup, he quips, Be careful not to break my hair.
The film also shows Romney’s imperfections. On stage, he’s a sunny optimist (Believe in America was his slogan). But in private, he’s gloomier, predicting the worst outcomes. When he returned backstage following his second debate with President Barack Obama – the one where he flubbed an answer about the Benghazi attacks – his family tells him he did a good job, but Romney rolls his eyes and shakes his head.
I’ll bet it’s 70-30 in the polls, he says. 80-20? 90-10?
Romney gets testy in 2008 when David Chalian of ABC News explains the dining room table conversation concept of that night’s debate. A dining room conversation is among members of the family, Romney says, getting hot. These are all people competing for the same job, all right?
Romney also is obsessed with his caricature from the 2008 campaign – The Flippin’ Mormon, he says over and over again. He solicits advice from his team. I won’t fix the Mormon side, he says. Of the flip-flopper label, he says: There’s nothing I can do. ’He was at Burger King last night, McDonald’s the night before.’ It’s so damaging to me.
But MITT is not a film about campaign strategy. Little time is spent on issues such as Romney’s 47 percent comments and the ensuing damage to his campaign, although one scene shows Romney rehearsing lines about it as Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, stands in for Obama.
Mostly, the film is about the Romney family’s travails – starting around Christmas 2006, when Romney grabs a legal pad and convenes a family meeting around the fire at his Utah ski chalet to chart the pros and cons of running for president.
On Oct. 3, 2012, the night of his first debate with Obama, Romney whistles around his Denver hotel suite picking up trash after his grandkids. He scarfs down a bowl of takeout pasta. Get a little something in your tummy, Ann instructs him.
So, Romney asks her, any advice?
Ann takes a long pause. Conviction from your heart as to why you’re running, she says. Conviction that this country’s on the wrong course and that you are able to put it on the right one. Conviction. Complete power from within your heart.