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 reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle