“Mitt,” Greg Whiteley’s fly-on-the-wall documentary about Mitt Romney’s two presidential campaigns, is always interesting (how could it not be, with the remarkable degree of access the candidate gave the filmmaker?) but never really involving. That may be because Whiteley, whether by chance or design, has created a new genre in nonfiction filmmaking. “Mitt” is available on Netflix starting Friday.
Where ABC Sports pioneered the “up close and personal” approach with its Olympics coverage in the 1970s, Whiteley offers up close and familial. Watching Romney with his wife, their grown children, the children’s spouses, and various grandchildren is like being a passerby invited into a large family reunion. You’re made to feel welcome, but there’s always that sense of being an outsider.
Whiteley has directed two previous documentaries: “New York Doll” (2005), about a Mormon-convert alumnus of the ’70s rock group the New York Dolls, and “Resolved” (2007), about high school debaters. Whiteley, who like Romney is Mormon, had heard that the then-Massachusetts governor had seen and enjoyed “New York Doll.” So in 2006 he proposed to Tagg Romney, Mitt’s oldest son, a behind-the-scenes film about his father’s prospective 2008 presidential campaign. “Mitt” is the result.
It begins with Romney on Election Night 2012, knowing that he has lost to Barack Obama. “So what do you say in a concession speech?” he asks family members gathered around him. It’s a flash of self-awareness and evidence of a sense of humor that Romney never really revealed as governor or candidate. There are several such in the documentary, and they make the man appealing in a way that the public figure wasn’t.
Whiteley then goes back to Christmas 2006. We see Romney snowboarding with his grandkids, then inside with his wife, sons, and daughters-in-law deciding whether to run for president. He picks up a legal pad to set down the pros and cons.
A humanizing detail like that legal pad is what’s best about “Mitt.” Ann Romney musses her husband’s famously helmet-like hair. His ski gloves are duct-taped. He eats takeout in his hotel room. The family kneels to pray together. Romney shows the camera the notes he made during the first debate with Obama. Noticing trash on the balcony of his hotel room before that debate, he steps outside to pick it up. He also neatens up the hotel room on Election Night. “My eyes are caves, anyway,” he says with a shrug when considering how he might look in a photograph. He irons a shirt cuff — while still wearing the shirt! As Mitt gasps in occasional pain, Ann can’t believe he keeps on doing it. It could be a moment out of a family sitcom. He does get the wrinkle out, though.
The documentary is just over 90 minutes in length. Whiteley, who must have amassed an enormous amount of footage, handles the two campaigns concisely. The first third covers 2008. “When this is over I will have built a brand name,” Romney tells family members as he contemplates withdrawing. That sure sounds like standard Romney. Then he adds, “People will know what I stand for: the Flipping Mormon.” That doesn’t.
The 2012 Republican race is covered with a quick montage. The lion’s share of the documentary is the final months of the campaign. There’s some footage of rallies and the first two debates. Mostly, though, it’s behind-the-scenes moments, and most of the people in those moments are Romney family members. The sense of closeness in the family is quite winning. But presidential campaigns are notorious for cutting off their candidates and putting them in a cocoon. In “Mitt,” the Romneys come to seem like a cocoon within a cocoon.
A note of local interest: When the candidate and his wife go to vote on Election Day the location of the polling place is identified as Boston. Those grabby Bostonians. Who knew that they’d annexed Belmont?