The new Mitt Romney documentary Mitt, which is currently streaming on Netflix, opens with the event that most likely will be his legacy—Election Night 2012. His campaign over, his defeat at the hands of Barack Obama assured, he sits among his quiet, despondent family in a hotel suite. "What do you think you say in a concession speech?" he asks.
That loss hangs heavy over the rest of Mitt, which spends its remaining running time flashing back to the Republican presidential aspirant's unsuccessful 2008 and 2012 campaigns. Mitt isn't scandalous: The film avoids juicy behind-the-scenes political intrigue a la The War Room to focus on Romney with his family in between his many campaign demands. There aren't big gotcha moments—although director Greg Whiteley doesn't canonize the guy, either—but what does make Mitt remarkable is that it's one of those rare times where we're shown what failure looks like.
Netflix is advertising Mitt with the tagline, "Whatever side you're on, see another side," promising a glimpse of the "real" presidential candidate and former Massachusetts governor. Yet the "other side" it wants us to see is all the minutiae that goes into a presidential campaign—the sitting around with your wife before a televised debate, the late-night powwows about primary numbers, the endless traveling. This is the guts of Mitt, and because the final outcome is known from the beginning, there's a strange poignancy to the futility of what we observe. Normally, such a backstage, procedural documentary shows us all the hard work as an inevitable precursor to the eventual triumph. But not Mitt. We watch a guy working very, very hard, even though we know he's going to fall short.
Typically, Americans aren't comfortable with losers. Living in a culture that produces dozens of award shows and reality competitions, we remember the victors more than the vanquished. We cheer on our sports champions, invite them to the White House and buy their motivational books in the belief that if we follow their example, we can be champions, too. If we do remember losers, it's because we've reduced them to cultural punch lines (e.g., Bill Buckner). We all just want to go to Disneyland.
This explains why American movies sell inspiration, not disappointment: We want to believe that our efforts are always rewarded. When Hollywood produced Moneyball about Billy Beane, the savvy, penny-pinching Oakland A's general manager, it couldn't end with the A's winning the World Series because that didn't happen. Instead, the filmmakers had to shift the story to a celebration of the club's 20-game winning streak and Beane's loving, fulfilling relationship with his daughter. When Apollo Creed defeats Rocky in the first Rocky, Sylvester Stallone's underdog isn't portrayed as a loser; he gains a moral victory for standing strong against the champ. And it's not just fiction films that move the goalposts: Documentaries will often try to soft-pedal tough social realities with an optimistic we-can-fix-this message at the end that makes us feel like victory is just one check to a charity away. When we do permit ourselves as a society to talk about failure, it's usually in the context of it being a precursor to making a comeback, showing how that failure was motivation for a later triumph—so even in that case, failure isn't really failure.
By comparison, Mitt really is about failure, and Whiteley doesn't try to pretty up that fact by giving Romney and his wife a heroic send-off at the movie's finale. (Spoiler alert: They thank the Secret Service agents who watched over them, go inside their house and sit down.) And what's beautiful and tragic about that failure is that they don't know that failure is coming—they're doing their best to ensure an election victory. In its quiet way, Mitt hits at a universal truth: I can work my ass off and be a good person, but I still might not end up getting what I want.
It's a truth we have a difficult time accepting. In fact, we'll do just about anything to deny it. That's why there might have been a temptation for some filmmakers to turn Romney into a subject of easy ridicule, not so subtly laying out clues to suggest why he lost to Obama, painting the candidate as no better than the buffoons in a Christopher Guest mockumentary. But aside from showing Romney try to iron his tuxedo while wearing it, Mitt has too much respect for the guy to take potshots at him. Spending six years chronicling the Romney family, Whiteley clearly felt close to these people, and that compassion is rewarded through his ability to capture intimate family moments, like when Romney and his brood are sitting around deciding whether he wants to run in 2008. As his son Tagg puts it, even if Romney doesn't win, "we'll still love you. The country may think of you as a laughingstock—we'll know the truth. And that's okay. But I think you have a duty to your country and to God to see what comes of it." The movie understands that the path to winning is the exact same path to losing—we just don't know which road we're on until it's over.
Maybe our discomfort with losers suggests why some have misread Mitt, expecting the movie to be something it isn't. The Huffington Post's Sarah Beauchamp suggested that Mitt "confirms why Romney isn't president," pointing to moments from the documentary where Romney states that Obama is a formidable opponent and that his own candidacy is flawed because of the negative public image of him as a flip-flopper.
But Beauchamp's after-the-fact analysis feels like the same Monday-morning quarterbacking that goes on in sports, fixating on one or two weaknesses in a game plan as indicative of why a team couldn't have possibly won. What might be most upsetting to some viewers is that Mitt eschews such simplistic, kneejerk analysis. From the movie's perspective, losing a presidential election doesn't look that different than winning one. (For any Mitt viewer to assume that everyone in Obama's camp was completely confident and never had any misgivings about running for office is the mistake that our just-win-baby culture makes all the time: We take it as a given that all champions are inherently, unquestionably superior to their opponents, ignoring how circumstance, timing and luck can play into these contests.)
By showing Romney compassion, Whiteley makes us sit in the skin of a loser and forces us to get accustomed to it. Normally, we're too busy mocking that individual or rushing to explain why he failed, positioning ourselves as smarter or shrewder than the loser. What we almost never do is simply recognize that losing is a part of life.
Flawed candidate that he was, Romney at least understood this. Near Mitt's opening, Whiteley shows footage of Romney speaking to some supporters in the buildup to the 2008 campaign, where he'd eventually lose the Republican nomination to Arizona Senator John McCain. Romney is clear-eyed about what he's getting himself into. "I have looked at what happens to anybody in this country who loses as the nominee of their party," he admits. "They become a loser for life." The crowd laughs. Romney then references Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis, who lost to George H.W. Bush in 1988. "He can't get a job mowing lawns," Romney says, to more laughter. But Romney doesn't seem to be making fun of Dukakis: "We just brutalize whoever loses, all right? And I know that—I know that. I'm going in with my eyes open."
It takes courage to put yourself on the line—to risk being brutalized or mocked for grabbing for that proverbial brass ring. (Of course, there's ego and ambition involved as well.) But too often, we try to soften that blow by telling ourselves that the risks and sacrifices are worth it because we'll get rewarded—that we're made of sterner, better stuff than those losers, and therefore, we won't suffer the same fate. Mitt throws cold water all over those bromides. Losing is lonely and hard, and none of us are immune to it. Romney is in a select group of people who have failed in such a public way—which makes him a giant loser. That's a fact, but we also rush to turn that into a judgment. This is why Mitt is so valuable. For once, a movie shines a light on the part of the American Dream that's always lurking in the shadows but that we're too afraid to acknowledge: Sometimes, the other guy wins.
Photo courtesy of Netflix