“Mitt,” The Documentary and The Man

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“Mitt,” The Documentary and The Man

Over a year ago, when I still bothered reading the Whine Line section of this paper — a feature that, I get the feeling, the Metro Spirit buries as if it itself is a cat dutifully, resignedly, burying a fellow, though semi-retarded, cat’s flotilla of excrement — someone commented to the effect of: “Josh should stick to slicing lemons.” That person, for the record, wishes me bodily harm.

I sliced my finger open today while proceeding upon that very duty — to wit: even up here, where we don’t sweeten our tea, patrons become quite irate if it’s not garnished with a fresh lemon wedge — which, combined with that person’s comment, was the gentle nudge into full-blown existential meltdown that I’ve needed, like an a-hole “here” (points to elbow, jiggles eyebrows at film nerds), all my life.

So I watched the documentary “Mitt,” which chronicles said Romney’s attempts to win the presidency in both 2008 and 2012. I have a problem with this film, as you might have guessed, though maybe not — but still, probably so — for the reasons you might guess. The problems I have with Mitt the person are related to “Mitt” the film, but the two are exclusive enough of each other that I can appreciate the fact that one possesses merits, while the other one… does not.

To be frank, “Mitt” is very good. Director Gregory Whitely — who initially only undertook the film because he was an admirer of George Romney — is an able documentarian, and it helps his reputation that, based purely on past projects, he’s not the obvious go-to for a Romney doc. Whitely was previously most known for directing “New York Doll” (during a screening of which he, holy crap, first met Mitt Romney), a chronicle of former New York Dolls member Arthur “Killer” Kane’s battles with addiction, alcoholism and a conversion to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a common thread I’m strangely willing to overlook.

Like any good filmmaker, Whitely treats his subject with respect but not reverence, and gives ample attention to both victory and defeat, lays bare the most human of admissions — “We cannot do this again” — and the most human of gaffes: “It’s different, speaking my mind.”

The latter quote is taken from one of Romney’s sons — I’m not going to bother figuring out which one, Craig, Tagg or otherwise, because they all scream “entitled white kid” louder than a pair of Topsider boat shoes, and were the only people involved in this film who consistently acted kind of like rich brats.

The quote, though, sort of sums up the problem with a film like this: it’s different, absolutely, seeing the personal side of someone like Mitt Romney, who so came across in the electoral cycles — and, let’s face it, in nearly every public appearance he made — like a Hilfiger-and-Koch-licensed automaton. Here, he was in turns candid, self-effacing, self-doubting, nervous, confident and, shocker of shockers, relatable to a degree.

Here’s the problem: we’re stricken dumb, taken rapt when a politician — or most any public figure, for that matter — shows any sign of humanity, of weakness, of psychological complexity or, gasp, fragility, so it’s fairly easy to elicit a sentimental response from a viewing audience with a film like this. “Mitt” fully acknowledges, by its very existence, not just the razor-thin, but still evident, vacuum that occupies the space between the professional politician — that is, the on-camera, in-print persona — and the thinking, feeling, empathetic human being, but also the too-predictable willingness of the public at large to accept such a division. The very fact that the film plays to emotion is evidence of that fact.

Because, look, Mitt Romney is really not a good person. I sold him short in a way when I was writing consistently about the last electoral cycle — on a side note, I’d like to thank Hillary Clinton in advance for making my job very easy in 2016 — when I referred to him as a “dumbass,” an “idiot” and, probably, “a big stupid meanie-head.” Because I’m still kind of a juvenile even though I recently turned 30, most of the insults I dredged up for Romney were indicative of what I interpreted to be his ignorance of laypersons’ socio-economic plights.

The opposite, however, is true: Romney is not stupid, and that’s what makes him so much worse. He went to an Ivy League school; he studied abroad; he’s got, from what I can tell, a fairly agile mind for finances and (cutthroat) business, and what should be a complex, cultured worldview, given his travels and international business savvy. Instead, he exhibits not just contemptible business practices — Bain Capital much? — but a resolute disdain for anyone who is outside the scope of his influence, which is to say anyone below his tax bracket.

I’m not trying to wheel Romney out for another beating because I think he’s a relevant political figure who poses a threat to anything except his own already-sketchy legacy. But “Mitt” both illustrates the one true aim of a documentary — that is, to bring to light that which has heretofore been hidden — and at the same time gives it almost a satirical send-up, due solely to its subject matter. If only satire were Whiteley’s true aim. If only we took as much care to look at the world around us, and knew enough to laugh, wisely.

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