Friday, July 25, 2014

Mitt Romney Sundance film gives unprecedented access to man, family

By Matthew Brown, Deseret News National Edition

Published: Tue, Jan. 14 3:20 p.m. MST

 A scene of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney in the documentary \

A scene of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney in the documentary "Mitt," which premieres at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

(Netflix/One Potato Productions)

When Greg Whiteley began filming Mitt Romney's six-year quest for the presidency, the documentary filmmaker seldom had his camera trained on the candidate's family.

Like other documentarians of political campaigns, Whiteley was drawn to the intrigue of strategy meetings, filming the candidate and his advisers plotting their next move.

But, campaign strategists weren't as fascinated with Whiteley recording their every word and told him so.

"In most cases the candidate and his family are off limits. In my case it was the just the opposite. The campaign wanted nothing to do with me and the family was open," he said. "I couldn’t explain how or why I got the family to trust me to the degree that they did. But they just did and I went with it. As a result it’s great family drama."

The unusually personal political documentary "Mitt," about a candidate and his family living through the rigors of a presidential campaign, has its world premiere at this year's Sundance Film Festival with eight screenings, including the festival's Salt Lake City Gala at Rose Wagner Theater on Friday.

The film will be released through Netflix on Jan. 24.

No ground rules

Romney family members are not commenting about the film, the former candidate's son Josh said. And Whiteley said the family hasn't seen the final cut, although Josh Romney did view a pre-cut version last year.

But Mitt Romney was familiar with Whiteley's work before he let the award-winning filmmaker into the private confines of family gatherings.

Romney first appeared on Whiteley's radar in early 2006 after the filmmaker got an email mentioning that then-Massachusetts Gov. Romney attended a screening in Boston of Whiteley's popular documentary "New York Doll." The film is about the late punk rocker Arthur Kane, a reformed alcoholic who converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"I was intrigued by that, that the governor of Massachusetts would be interested in movie about cross dressing punk rock stars," Whiteley recalled.

When he read that Romney was considering the GOP nomination for president, Whiteley told his producer about the idea of film documenting the ventures of another Mormon — this time one running for commander in chief.

Romney turned down Whiteley's first request. But when Whiteley got word, through Romney's son Tagg, that Romney's wife Ann liked the idea, Whiteley showed up at the family's Deer Valley home on Christmas Eve 2006. It was during that holiday break that the family would discuss the pros and cons of running and decide.

"Mitt was there. He let me in and I started filming," Whiteley said.

There were no ground rules on what Whiteley could film, only an agreement that he would not release any footage until Romney was done running for president or being president.

"I thought that would be two years at the most," said Whiteley, who recalled the indications were that the family would give national politics one shot and then move on.

Instead, it turned into a six-year project documenting a close knit family doing what families do — laughing, talking, crying, praying, eating, teasing, arguing — except in the extraordinary context of two presidential races.

Trevor Groth, director of programming for Sundance, said the intimate family setting of "Mitt" is what makes it fascinating — and unprecedented in political documentaries.

"So much of life is connected to family and the experiences of dealing with family are so inherently dramatic," Groth said. "I think artists tap into that, they get inspiration from that and I think they find truth in telling those stories."

Public perception

Throughout the 2012 presidential race, supporters of Mitt Romney constantly complained that the public didn't really know the man behind his too-good-to-be-true polished appearance and model family.

Pundits chimed in that the campaign could build trust and admiration among voters by talking more about the faith and family of the multi-millionaire Mormon and Republican nominee.

Romney friend Mike Leavitt — who won three terms as governor of Utah and served in President George W. Bush's cabinet before becoming a top adviser to the Romney campaign — explained the public is often caught in the middle of a process where candidates try to define their opponents.

"It's impossible to get to know a political figure in the context of a campaign," said Leavitt, who recalled seeing Whiteley on the campaign bus. "People are deliberately trying to define (opposing candidates) in ways that are negative and almost always exaggerated."

Whiteley is reflective about the feedback from those who have viewed the film, particularly from those who seemed surprised to see Romney doing mundane things, like picking up trash.

"The reaction to it reveals how we look at presidential candidates," Whiteley said. "I don’t think we look at them as real people. The process ... prevents the general public from treating people authentically and seeing them as human beings."

Whiteley doesn't know whether what he witnessed in the homes, hotel rooms, buses, airplanes and other places the Romneys gathered would have effectively countered the image of a cold-hearted businessman and flip-flopping politician portrayed by Romney's Democratic as well as GOP opponents if his documentary had been released during the campaign.

"Knowing the political ramifications of the footage I have is way beyond my paygrade," he said. But, Whiteley noted that in the hundreds of hours of film he has of the candidate and his family he captured more of Romney's decency and humility than the public saw — even with the campaign's efforts to project a positive image of Mitt.

"The problem is every presidential campaign is pushing the story of what a great guy the candidate is, so the people go, 'Yeah right, we’ve heard that before,'" he said. "But in the case of Mitt Romney, that’s actually true."

Fly on the wall

Whiteley said the documentary has no narration or background music and carries no message or moral.

"We don’t answer a lot of questions," he said. "We just place you as a fly on the wall and you get a perspective of what it is like to be a presidential candidate that I think is unprecedented."

Whiteley hopes viewers will feel the same exhilaration he did documenting the emotional roller coaster of winning and losing primaries, accepting the GOP nomination, assessing debate performances and coming to terms with losing on election night 2012.

He recalls in particular the thrill he felt filming the Romney clan in the privacy of their hotel room on election night.

"How many people were wondering about what I am seeing with my own two eyes," he recalled thinking at that moment and throughout the editing process of the film. "I kept remembering how I felt on election night and how do I build to that moment. ... I want the audience to have that same feeling I did."

Email: mbrown@deseretnews.com

Twitter: @deseretbrown

"Mitt" the official trailer

Recommended
1. USAlover
Salt Lake City, UT,
Jan. 14, 2014

America messed up...big time.

2. Bob K
portland, OR,
Jan. 14, 2014

Rather than touting a trip on a train that has already left the station....

The film and the DN writer might do more good by answering the real questions of why Mitt lost, and investigating how someone who came across so well in his mormon service managed to get into business dealings that may have hurt workers, how he could apparently show such contempt for much of America (47%), and how he and the family managed to be so surprised and unprepared when he lost.

Some of us were very turned off by those remarks, by the shifting or reversing of positions without explanation, and by Ann sounding like Marie Antoinette in TV interviews.

A truly interesting film would explain how people who are so revered by many, and are obviously basically good people, could manage such a poor job of seeing how they came across to the public.

.... and Please! There were no "dirty tricks" such as the lies about John Kerry. Mitt managed not to beat a President who had looked quite vulnerable.

Treating the Romneys as "saints" (in the non-mormon sense) does not help anyone to understand.

3. suzyk#1
Mount Pleasant, UT,
Jan. 14, 2014

To: USAlover - you are so right...and when are these Americans going to take off their blinders and realize the harm they are doing and have done to our United States of America.

4. Jared from CT
SOUTHBURY, CT,
Jan. 14, 2014

Many years ago I once went to church in New Hampshire while on vacation and Mitt was there. At the time he was Governor of MA. I didn't approach him, because I didn't want to distract or treat him like a celebrity. I lived in CT and know good people who know and love Mitt. I followed Mitt's campaign very closely, and read everything I could about him. Without a doubt, Mitt is a GOOD man. I also believe that Mitt would have been a better president than Reagan. But he lost. There are a lot of reasons why. But the most important reason is because America got what it deserved: Four more years of its worst president EVER.

5. 4601
Salt Lake City, UT,
Jan. 14, 2014

Bob K
portland, OR
Romney's business dealings mostly had to do with companies who were on the edge of failure. The ones that were viable were made profitable and saved and the ones that were not viable were liquidated. The current CEO of Bain Capital donated to the Obama campaign and the money was gladly accepted. You have mistaken the message for the messenger. Don't shoot the messenger. The defamation of Romney by the left wing press and in the Democrat campaign were a gross distortion of the person that Romney is. Your post indicates the success of their character assignation.