Mitt: Sundance 2014 - first look review

Ahead of the Sundance screening of Mitt, a festival organiser takes to the stage to explain that Greg Whiteley's documentary on the 2012 presidential nominee is officially incomplete.

There are some typos in the credits, she says, and the print still needs to be properly colour-coded. In hindsight this last piece of information makes a whole lot of sense. We came expecting to see Mitt Romney in monochrome. But the man on the screen appears positively radiant.

How ironic to realise that the greatest Mitt Romney campaign ad should arrive too late to save him, blowing in to Park City, Utah, a full 14 months after he slumped to defeat against Barack Obama. Whiteley shows us a side of the candidate we never knew existed. He comes across smart, relaxed and witty, at least among his family and friends. It's hard not to warm to someone who potters about collecting litter, or who beds down on the floor of the campaign plane with his long legs sticking out in the aisle. He rates O Brother Where Art Thou? as his favourite movie and quotes Pappy O'Daniel with glee ("Just go and write my concession speech now!"). Time and again I found myself struggling to square Whiteley's amiable fellow with the other Mitt Romney: the stiff, stentorian corporate raider who wants to slash welfare, cut taxes, and who blithely writes off 47% of the electorate as "victims".

Mitt follows Romney and his handsome, hearty family from his first, faltering White House run of 2008 (when he was bested in the primaries by grinning John McCain) through to his Waterloo in November 2012. It takes us backstage as he huddles with his loved ones and ruefully acknowledges his dwindling chances.

Naturally the film is a piece of embedded journalism, with all that this entails. Mitt is utterly uncritical, ignores the policies altogether and, as such, could reasonably be labelled as just another brand of snake oil; a Hello! magazine cover story masquerading as a documentary.

The truth, however, may be a shade more complex than that. Is Romney entirely playing to the cameras here? If so, he's a much better performer than the stuffed-shirt Herman Munster who we saw on the stump. Whether intentionally or not, Whiteley's softly-softly approach proves weirdly illuminating. It paints the campaign process as reductive and constraining, so remorselessly stage-managed that it reduces the contenders to a bunch of bad actors. In the end, the public Romney was always going to be less convincing than the private one.

On election night, Ohio goes Democrat and the Republican nominee is staring defeat in the face. "My time on the stage is over," he shrugs and this is surely as it should be. But time will tell. Romney, it turns out, has a house near Park City and attended the Sundance screening with his family in tow. What must he have thought, sitting in the dark and watching himself on the screen - so loose and limber and resolutely un-colour-coded? If Whiteley's film didn't make him want to run again in 2016 then I'm guessing nothing will.

- More from the Sundance film festivalPowered by article was written by Xan Brooks, for on Sunday 19th January 2014 01.27 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


image: © Gage Skidmore