POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jan 19, 2014
SALT LAKE CITY » "Mitt," the documentary about Mitt Romney's failed quest for the presidency, begins on Christmas Eve 2006, with Romney, his wife, Ann, and their five sons sitting in their Park City house, weighing the pros and cons of a Romney candidacy.
"I feel like if people really get to know who you are," said Craig Romney, the youngest of the brood at 25 then, "it could be a successful campaign."
Of course, the campaign was not successful, and many of Mitt Romney's relatives and close friends feel that the nation never truly got to know the Mitt Romney - fun-loving husband and father, turnaround expert - they all adore.
But "Mitt" offers an up-close, behind-the-scenes look at the man who could never quite connect with the voters he so desperately needed to persuade.
There is Mitt Romney the man of faith, kneeling in prayer with his family in a hotel room. There is Mitt Romney the self-aware presidential hopeful, acknowledging that he may be a "flawed candidate" because of his reputation as the "flipping Mormon." And there is Mitt Romney on election night in 2012, clear-eyed but stunned as he watches the country slip away. ("Boy, all those states, huh," he says. "Wisconsin, Michigan, Nevada.")
The film, which covers Romney's 2008 and 2012 presidential runs, had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday and will be officially released by Netflix this week. It is the creation of Greg Whiteley, 44, a filmmaker who was simultaneously described by campaign aides as "the sweetest guy in the world" and a "persona non grata" on the trail.
But Whiteley, a Mormon, won the trust of Romney and his family and, he said Friday in an interview, "just blended in."
"It was like nature photography," Whiteley said. "I didn't ask a lot of questions, and I just filmed."
The price of access was simple: Whiteley retained all editorial control, as long as he promised not to release anything without the campaign's permission until Romney had finished running for or being president.
The documentary offers a more personal, quirky and human side of Romney than often came through during his campaigns.
At one point, Romney's oldest son, Tagg, and some other Romney kin pushed for Whiteley to release his movie during the 2012 campaign.
"But there were people on the team who did not want it to come out," Tagg Romney said, adding that he thought it would have helped if voters had seen his father through "an unfiltered lens."
So why couldn't Mitt Romney's own highly paid team of strategists conjure up the same three-dimensional man whom Whiteley seems to capture so well?
"It's one of the challenges of modern politics, which is 'How do you communicate who the candidate is and what they really believe, in the short time period you have?'" Romney said in an interview late Friday after watching the film here for the first time.
Whiteley looks as if he could be a character on the television series "Glee," with an earnest hipster vibe and a resemblance to a clean-cut Justin Timberlake. To make his film, he said, "I sort of started begging family members, then I took out a mortgage on my house, and then I maxed out my credit cards." (He clarified that neither the Romney family nor the Mormon Church had helped finance his project.)
And although Whiteley had close access to the Romneys, there were notable exceptions. He said staff members had kicked him out of strategy sessions "all the time," something he believes was ultimately a "blessing in disguise, because it forced me to focus on the family."
As a result, the documentary largely glosses over some crucial campaign moments, like Romney's comment to donors in 2012 that 47 percent of Americans were "dependent upon government" and would therefore vote for President Barack Obama.
The film comes closest to capturing what Romney truly believes in one of its final scenes, as he sits with his family and top strategist, grappling with his concession speech.
Although his strategist urges him to take a "pastoral role," an exasperated Romney snaps, "I don't think this is a time for soothing and everything's fine." He worries aloud that the country is on the wrong path under Obama - "tax the rich people, promise more stuff to everybody, borrow until you go over a cliff," he says - and will reach a "tipping point" within the next five years.
The documentary also underscores a complicated truth: Not only did Romney's team often fail to convey the full depth of its candidate, but he himself could not seem to transcend the barrier between his public and private personas.
Romney, looking more relaxed and upbeat on Friday, but equally on message, defended his campaign team in the interview.
"The team, in my view, did a superb job," Romney said. "I made some significant mistakes that they had to do their very best to try to clean up from, but they were nonetheless my mistakes, and I don't blame them for my mistakes."
He added: "Were I to be able to turn the clock back and be able to run again, I would choose the same people."
He also offered a forceful defense of Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, a potential 2016 Republican presidential contender who is embroiled in a scandal about lane closings in Fort Lee, N.J., that were spurred by political retribution and snarled commuter traffic and emergency vehicles.
Many in Romney's orbit, including donors and former aides, have publicly rejoiced in Christie's recent troubles because they believe the governor's embrace of Obama after Hurricane Sandy doomed the 2012 Romney candidacy. But Romney said: "I think the bridge issue is behind him. He took responsibility, he fired people who had let him down, and I think people will look back on this as being an example of how you handle something like this effectively."
As for "Mitt," Romney said watching the documentary had allowed him to "relive the whole campaign."
The movie ends with Mitt and Ann Romney returning to their townhouse in Belmont, Mass. They say goodbye to their Secret Service detail and head inside, where, for the first time in months, they are finally - and totally - alone.
"As soon as I shot that moment, I knew that was the end," Whiteley said. "I was on this ride, and then all of a sudden it's done. It's like you're on 'The Sopranos' - and then you're whacked."
Ashley Parker, New York Times