In “Mitt”, Mitt Romney is both alien and somehow also beautifully, terribly human

A new film following Mitt Romney from his failed first presidential bid in 2007-8 to his doomed candidacy in 2012 may not be political dynamite, but it is an oddly compelling portrait of a very awkward man.

It is the night of 6 November, 2012, and MSNBC has just called Ohio for Barack Obama. In a nondescript hotel suite, a voice you recognise but one that seems awfully small at that moment wonders: “Um. Does anyone have a number for the President?” A face you recognise, only softer, redder, and at that point heartbreaking sad turns away from the camera with what look like tears in his eyes.

It is six years earlier, in 2006. Kids scream and sledge down a snowy slope towards a pole stuck upright in the snow. Someone asks: “is the pole the finish line?” A voice you still recognise, but one which now seems stronger somehow and more vibrant, says: “Yeah. First one to the pole.” In the next shot is the face you recognise again, only younger this time, the hair less grey, the eyes less sad.

At the end of the scene, Mitt Romney is sprawled on his back in the snow; he has launched himself at the pole but ended up head over heels in the snow. He is laughing uproariously at his failure. “This is where I wanted to be,” he says.

See what they did there?

***

The film is Mitt, a Netflix original film which had inside access to Romney and his family on and off from his failed first presidential bid in the 2007-8 primaries through to the aftermath of his second, much closer but still ultimately failed bid in 2012. While it isn't exactly political dynamite, once you get over how obsessed the film is with the sort of symbolic prefiguration above (which is pretty damn obsessed), there are some nice intimate moments with Romney and his amazingly numerous family to enjoy. And as a portrait of a man, it is oddly compelling.

During the 2000 presidential campaign, some campaign reporter or other damningly called then-Democrat candidate and former vice-president Al Gore “surprisingly lifelike”, and that quote comes to mind while watching Mitt try to interact with other humans. (When I first typed the previous sentence, I actually wrote: 'while watching Mitt try to interact with humans,' which I think is pretty telling in and of itself.)

An example: Mitt, in full white tie and tails on his way to a gala, ironing the cuff of his shirt on his arm. “It's working. Ouch. It's sort of working. Ouch.” Another: in one scene early in the primary campaign, the off-camera voice of the director asks Mitt how he remains so upbeat. “I take pills for that,” the candidate awkwardly jokes. Then he flashes a smile of such dazzling suddenness that I can't help but be put in mind of Gordon Brown on the campaign trail in 2010, switching his grin on and off as if, by a complex system of wires, his face was hooked up to an electrical switch.

But on Brown, the grin reeked of desperation; a legislator plunged into a spotlight that he loathed with every fibre of his being. To look into his eyes at that moment was to take an agonising glimpse of a man in hell. Mitt Romney wears it differently. On him, the switchblade smile has an oddly melancholy quality; his eyes are mostly just sad, and hurt. And also, slightly confused, maybe disbelieving.

The moment in the second debate where the moderator  interceded on Obama's behalf (which was probably, in actual fact, a pretty unfair thing for her to do) is framed as a decisive moment for Mitt, so I went back to YouTube and watched more of that debate. The look in Romney's eyes was heartbreaking. The unfairness of it all. And all the while the smiling President talks rings around him; a shark, circling a drowning man.

Afterwards, in the film, we see Mitt painfully reliving his moment of disaster. “The other thing was, I wanted to come back and talk about him, and his China stuff – she kept interrupting me, saying no, no, you can't talk about that” he gripes. Then his voice becomes a wail. “It's like: why can't I talk about that? He talked about that. I can't do that?”

***

Yesterday, Barack Obama gave his sixth State of the Union address.

It was not his best, really. Light on genuine policy, it lacked for the most part the President's trademark altitude of oratory. Last night, the President failed to throw his usual handful of saltpeter on the fires of imagination. Last night won't change the course of history.

Somewhere in Massachusetts, probably surrounded by his family, Mitt Romney will have watched it and, perhaps, mused about what would have been had things gone differently. Had he not fluffed the second debate, had he not been secretly filmed deriding the “47 per cent” - though the moment Mitt heard about that scandal was frustratingly absent from Mitt – and had he not penned his op-ed saying he would let Detroit go bankrupt, what would he have said things markedly differently tonight? Would Mitt's 2014 State of the Union have gone down in history?

The film doesn't tell us. Instead, we are given a touching but faintly anodyne glimpse at Romney the nice person, hapless and friendly, whose hapless and friendly family all love him very much, and who always says “heck” instead of “hell”.

Director Greg Whiteley doesn't do a huge amount of investigation into Romney in his role as the candidate fighting to win an election. The only hard choice we see, in fact, is when he decides to run – for the 2008 campaign; we don't see that same decision for 2012 – and even then it is framed as a touching family moment, not a tough political calculation.

Nor does it have any insight into what President Romney might have been like. Whiteley gives us no glimpse of Romney's campaign tactics, his policy deliberations, or his failings on the campaign trail. It shows him – brace yourselves, because this is firecracker stuff – as someone who is: happy when he's winning, and sad when he's losing.

Mitt shows him as a man who loves his family and is awkward but friendly when he meets people; all of which is lovely to see up close. But as a film about a political campaign it isn't in the same league as something like The War Room, about Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign.

As a film, Mitt desperately wants to show us a tragic figure. Showing him as a man who genuinely believes in helping people, it soaks the screen with his likeability even as it foreshadows his tragic downfall. But, in concentrating on constructing castles of prefiguration in the sky, it ignores the fact that if you know what you're looking for what really happened is that Romney was simply outclassed and outgunned.

Again: if you're looking for a political strategy thriller, you really would be better off watching The War Room.

But if there's a moment that saves Mitt as a piece of cinema, if not as catnip for politics geeks, it comes at the very end when Romney is saying farewell to the Secret Service staff who have protected him for the duration of the campaign. Unable quite to bring himself to hug, he goes in awkwardly for a handshake. But he has mistimed; the agent, looking the other way, doesn't notice him. Mitt winces and swerves his hand away. It's one of the funniest and saddest moments in the film. He's just such an awkward guy, like an alien trying to work out human interactions scientifically. Smile here. Now stop smiling. Handshake now. No! Abort handshake! Abort handshake!

In these candid scenes, he seems both alien and somehow also beautifully, terribly human. In a presidential candidate, it's a peculiar thing to see. Mitt Romney may not have even have met the Al Gore standard “surprisingly lifelike”, in the end. But despite this, in the film, he turns out to be surprisingly likeable.

 

Mitt Romney making a speech in Florida during the Republican primaries in early 2012. Photo: Getty

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times