Promoted as an intimate portrait of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s campaigns of 2008 and 2012, Greg Whiteley’s documentary film provides viewers with a look at what occurs behind the scenes of a presidential campaign and the toll that it takes on the candidate and their families. Unlike previous campaign documentaries, such as Primary(1960) and The War Room(1993), which focused on the daily machinations of campaigns from the point of view of the professionals involved in running the campaign, Whiteley’s film centers on the role that Romney’s [End Page 51]family played in managing the candidate’s campaign, advising him, and offering him love and support. Indeed, it was his son, Tagg who introduced Whiteley to the family and helped convince Romney to allow the making of the documentary.
Whiteley’s relationship with the Romney family began in 2005, when he learned that the then-governor of Massachusetts had attended a screening of his film New York Doll(2005), about a Mormon proto-punk rocker. The filmmaker became interested in the governor’s possible presidential bid, and expressed an interesting in making a film that examined the ways in which Romney’s Mormonism would impact the election. After meeting Romney’s son, Tagg, Whiteley was invited to the family’s vacation home in Park City, Utah where he filmed the first internal discussion and debate within the family about whether or not Romney should run for President. This telling scene captures the dynamics of the family, particularly when, in a candid moment, one of Romney’s sons urges his father to run for president because of his “duty to your country and God.”
This exchange sets the stage for a film that offers viewers a window into the mindset of Romney and his family, as well as a behind-the-scenes glimpse of one of the most contentious and documented presidential campaigns in modern history. Indeed, that sense of contention and media presence pervades the film, despite some awkward camerawork and off-center framing, which are intended to enhance the film’s air of authenticity but at times become distracting.
Whiteley constructs his narrative around Romney’s incredulity at losing the 2012 presidential election on incumbent Barack Obama. The film opens on election night in Romney’s hotel suite. In direct cinema style, it shows the entire family gathered, watching the election returns come in and debating the night’s outcome. Amidst the despair of his increasingly evident loss, Romney asks his sons: “Anybody have the number for the President?” He then chuckles, explaining that he “hadn’t thought about that.” It is the first visible sign of his overconfidence, which becomes more apparent at, the realization that he has lost the election sinking in, he looks around the room at his family and asks the crucial question: “What do you say in a concession speech?” In this moment it becomes apparent that even after two grueling campaigns, Romney never really thought about the possibility of final defeat.
Rather than chronicling the rest of the events in linear order, the film flashes back to Romney’s attempt to capture the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. Whiteley juxtaposes footage of the entire family frolicking in the snow with scenes of the family debating Romney’s decision to run. That seriousness of that decision is reinforced in scenes of Romney telling donors, during a 2007 fundraiser in California, that the candidate who makes an unsuccessful bid for the presidency “become[s] a loser for life. That’s it, its over.” This emphasis on winning, losing, and the toll they take on both life and reputation undergirds Whiteley’s film and Romney’s psyche. At one point, he even refers to himself as “the flipping Mormon,” an expression of frustration about how he is perceived by the media and his fellow Republicans. [End Page 52]
Romney’s bristly nature is again on display during the 2008 New Hampshire Republican Primary debate. He challenges the organizers’ competency when he learns that the format of the event will not adhere to his...