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The film weaves together scenes from Romney’s 2012 presidential bid. (NYT)
The film weaves together scenes from Romney’s 2012 presidential bid. (NYT)

John Doyle

Meet Mitt: The man who stood for nothing Add to ...

In the end, after it was all over and the staff and secret service agents departed, Mitt Romney went into his huge house, sat down and stared out the window. We don’t know what, exactly, he was thinking, but we have a sense of what he was feeling – relief.

Mitt (Netflix, currently streaming) begins and ends with the Romney family having very mixed feelings about Mitt’s decision to run for President of the United States. It’s a curious and wonderful documentary, one that creates vast spaces for the viewer to speculate on what exactly drove this man. Was it ego? Was it a determination to change America? Was it rock-solid belief in certain policies and principles? In the end, what is truly illuminating is that the answer’s probably this – “none of the above.”

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Filmmaker Greg Whiteley spent years with his camera inside the Romney family. It is far from explosive in its revelations and, unlike other postelection documentaries, it isn’t about the turmoil of the campaign, the “war rooms” of handlers and spin doctors or the media pack. It’s just Mitt and the Romney clan.

As such, it tells us a great deal. Why did Romney fail to connect with American voters? The answer can be found in several intimate scenes that require no voice-over, no talking-head explanation. One scene that answers the question might have this caption – “Only Mitt Romney could make a nap on a private jet look like a real pain-in-the-posterior experience.” Then here he is, struggling to get cozy under a duvet and looking ticked off.

The film begins with Romney’s run for the Republican nomination in 2008 and a family discussion about that. Nobody in the clan seems enthusiastic, and you can see why. The Romneys are fabulously rich, have a nice life and dislike confrontation or debate. They want to support Mitt in his quest. The disruption is something they will put up with.

An early illuminating scene shows Romney talking about the failure in 2008. Two things emerge – first, he’s awed by Barack Obama and, second, he’s resentful of putting his personal money into the campaign. He’s a neat freak and he’s a bit cheap. Politics is a challenge for this guy. It’s not neat and it costs money.

When the 2012 campaign comes around he’s still spooked by Obama. You can tell. He’s puzzled by Obama’s appeal when he, Romney, is the one with the business experience. He clings to this one story about a small business owner who has counted up all the taxes he pays, and is furious at the government. Romney’s furious on his behalf. He can’t see why all of America isn’t furious.

Most of the footage is taken in hotel rooms. They all look the same and you get a sense of the dreariness of the politician’s existence. But, always, Romney’s family is there. They pray together. They pump him up for the debates. There’s a strange moment after the first debate with Obama in which the President performed poorly. The Romney clan is delighted. But Mitt cannot believe what’s happening. He looks for the gloomy side and points out that sitting presidents always do poorly in the first debate. Partway through the second debate, Romney is toast and you can tell that he knows it.

What comes through, always, is Romney’s knowledge that he’s a “flawed candidate” (his words) and yet he doesn’t seem tortured by this. The filmmaker would not have been granted intimate access if his plan was to attack Mitt Romney. And this isn’t an attack. It’s a chronicle of a journey; a pointless journey that had no conviction in its beginning and only relief at its end.

Also airing tonight

Defying Putin (CBC, 8 p.m. on Doc Zone) is an hour-long look at various people and groups fighting for change in Russia. While it promises “a behind the scenes glimpse of a Russia you’ve never seen before,” some of it looks depressingly familiar – the police hauling away political candidates and protesters, young people expressing amazement at the docility of others. It is worth seeing, especially on the cusp of the Sochi Olympics, but it will take more than an hour to figure out the motley crew of forces at work in Russia.

Follow on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

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