“We’re messing his hair up!”
In the Manchester, N.H. classroom, repurposed for the evening as a candidate holding room, a beaming Ann Romney sing-songs as she tousles her husband’s hair with both hands in celebration of a debate win. It’s Mitt Romney like you’ve never seen him before: behind the scenes, unfiltered, human.
Fifteen months after the 2012 election, Mitt, a documentary which screened Friday at the Sundance Film Festival and will be available this week on Netflix, provides a historic view inside not one, but two, of Romney’s losing presidential campaigns through the lens of the candidate and his family. In that respect it is the inverse of the seminal 1992 campaign documentary War Room, which told the story of the Clinton campaign through its celebrity operatives. Mitt, in the words of director Greg Whiteley, is essentially “a bunch of scenes of Romney and his family hanging out.” His campaign was always skeptical of the project, and almost never agreed to be on camera.
“The campaign didn’t like me around,” he says. “Their argument was you’re carrying around a loaded gun. ‘We don’t know you at all.’ I think their concerns were perfectly valid.” Although that fear has since morphed into regret at a missed opportunity.
Filmed over six years by Whiteley, the film shows Mitt’s family discussing whether he should run for president in 2006 (“It would be a shame not to at least try,” says an emotional Tagg Romney, the eldest son. “And if you don’t win? We’ll still love you.”). Mitt picking up trash after his grandkids hours before a presidential debate. Mitt discussing strategy with his sons and daughters-in-law.
The camera is there to capture the moment when Romney, ensconced in a swanky hotel suite with his family and closest aides a block away from his Election Night party in Boston, realized for the first time, that he wasn’t going to be president. “By the way, does someone have a number for the president,” he’s seen asking, with a nervous laugh. The pains of defeat are written on his face as he tells an aide he’s done with his Secret Service detail.
When the film’s trailer was posted on YouTube late last year, New York magazine posted a gif of Romney ironing a tux while wearing it before the 2012 Al Smith Dinner, the documentary’s funniest scene. That goofy, humanizing side of Mitt is everywhere in evidence throughout the film, but was utterly invisible to the American public throughout the campaign—and it cost him.
During what his campaign turned the “long slog” to the nomination, President Barack Obama‘s team was fast at work defining him as an out-of-touch, extraordinarily wealthy executive who gutted companies to line his and his partners’ pockets. Exit polls on election night 2012 showed that Obama won 80% of those who said the most important quality in a candidate was that he or she “cares about people.” Reporters who followed his campaign saw first-hand the two Romneys: the caring and affable family man and the robotic figure he’d become the moment the cameras turned on. Off the record, he’d throw out a hokey joke and a hearty laugh. On the record, he’d clam up.
It wasn’t like Romney’s campaign didn’t know there was a problem. It orchestrated the Republican convention to showcase their candidate’s human side. Its powerful closing night featured stories of businesses he saved and lives he changed, and a painstakingly crafted biographical video. But these were overshadowed by Clint Eastwood’s on-stage meltdown.
While pulling back the curtain, Mitt does little to redefine the man who may be best remembered for etching “47 percent” into the American political psyche. The candid family discussions and introspective scenes that are captured from the 2008 campaign are nowhere to be seen. An increasingly insular Romney campaign declined to give Whiteley access until the general election, and even then, it was curtailed.
Garrett Jackson, the young aide who spent the most time with Romney on the 2012 campaign as his ‘body man’ called the post-47 percent video perception of Romney “the most disheartening thing,” about the campaign. “Is he a baby kissing Bill Clinton, no,” Jackson said. “But he’s one of the most passionate and caring people. What people don’t get is how he truly and sincerely cares.”
Whiteley says he didn’t set out to humanize Romney, nor does he think the film will dramatically alter anyone’s perception of him. “There are moments when we are all different when we are around our family and around our friends,” he told TIME. But in Romney’s case, that family identity is so different from the public one.
“Tagg, in particular felt strongly that ‘if people could know my dad the way I know my dad, then he would get elected,’” Whiteley explains.
An initial version of the film, cut in 2010, explored the candidate’s Mormon faith, but Romney aides, who worked hard in 2007 to diffuse the Mormon question, killed it. Several scenes in the documentary feature the Romneys in prayer, but at least one that included a family discussion about their beliefs is absent in the released version. Whiteley reflected that the Mormon issue wasn’t as central to the second campaign as it was the first, perhaps a sign of progress. “It felt like a bigger part of the campaign in 2008,” Whiteley says. Romney is seen referring to his public persona as the “flipping Mormon,” defined by his faith and shifting positions on the issues. In 2012, the filmmaker says, “It felt like a diversion.”
Whiteley’s one regret is that he couldn’t find a space for one scene, captured around July 4, 2007, after Romney returned to the family compound on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire after 45 straight days on the road campaigning. “They go out on this boat ride and everyone is kind of falling asleep,” Whiteley recalls. “Mitt is there driving this boat, and he had this very satisfied look on his face. You never want him to leave that boat. You just want him forever to stay right there. He just looks very content, and very happy, and safe.”
Mitt will be available on Netflix on Jan. 24, 2014 at 2 p.m. EST.