Just One of the Guys: ‘Mitt’ Attempts to Pull Back the Political Curtain
In lieu of the presidency, Mitt Romney might want to consider a sitcom. That’s the main takeaway from Greg Whiteley’s documentary Mitt, which records the behind-the-scenes action during Romney’s two unsuccessful runs at the presidency, in 2008 and 2012. Romney plays himself as a genial guy with an even-keeled demeanor. He doesn’t drink, doesn’t curse, doesn’t smoke, and even at his angriest he never rises to a shout. He just gets out his strong words. The viewer sees Romney watch his chances at the nation’s highest office vaporize twice, and both times Romney’s face clouds over with genuine disbelief.
Mitt is neither a deification nor a takedown; it just sort of is. Although it’s theoretically nonpartisan, making Mitt Romney seem like a regular dude is a propaganda of sorts. The movie addresses the “47 percent” scandal, in which Romney spoke to his audience of rich contributors as a peer at a private fundraiser, but Whiteley wasn’t filming when it happened. Although Mitt purports to be all-access, the access the filmmakers were given to Romney was clearly quite limited and carefully chosen to portray him from his good side. The doc teases the suspense from Romney’s surprise victory in 2012’s first presidential debate, but it doesn’t really go into the campaign’s downfall beyond emphasizing Romney’s cluelessness about how they had lost. This means there isn’t anything about Paul Ryan, “binders full of women,” corporations being people, or abortion rights.
It’s hard to pinpoint the moments in which Romney’s onscreen persona is shaped by his awareness of Whiteley’s cameras recording his every move, but Mitt does what Romney’s campaign couldn’t; it makes Romney into a human being, whose foibles seem relatable even to those who disagree with his politics. Surrounded by his aides and family, Mitt often feels like an offshoot of HBO’s Veep, with Romney as the central planet around whom a plethora of tiny frantic moons are revolving at all times. As a comedic character he falls somewhere between The Simpsons’ Principal Skinner and Ty Burrell’s perplexed dad Phil Dunphy on Modern Family. In his public life, and supposedly also in private, Romney embraces his own squareness to the fullest. But there are little fissures in Romney’s image that give off organic charm. When he reminds an aide not to “break his hair,” it’s funny, even if he’s probably cracked that joke a million times. Ann Romney is a fascinating person, and I kind of wish Amy Poehler could play her in a movie. She dresses in all white like Robin Wright in House of Cards and similarly stokes her husband’s presidential ambitions.
Mitt works best as a movie about family dynamics, like August: Osage County with 100 percent less yelling. Romney’s children and grandchildren are around him constantly. Nobody is particularly stoked to be campaigning. You see a little bit of the public smiles contrasted with the private exhaustion in endless hotel rooms, but there is also an unspoken sentiment that it would not be so bad if they lost. Everyone wants Dad to be the president because Dad wants to be the president, but they also don’t really want Dad to be the president because then they will never get to see Dad. They’re not actively discouraging him, but there’s a palpable sense that everyone really wants to go home. The atmosphere of frustration and stale air is like a holiday dinner gone on too long.
Early on in Mitt, Romney references the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? and is shocked when someone around him hasn’t seen it. He and Ann launch into a passionate conversation about how good it is, peppered with quotes from the film. The partition around Romney momentarily rolls down as this nibbly bit of information sinks in. Mitt Romney is a fan of the Coen brothers? One of his favorite movies stars noted loudmouth Hollywood liberal George Clooney? Maybe Mitt just likes the old-timey Southern nostalgia of O Brother, but who knows? Perhaps he’s just a cineast with good taste! Maybe Mitt and Ann have a quote from The Big Lebowski ready for every occasion and like to cuddle up on cold nights with Blood Simple or A Serious Man. Maybe the Romneys agree that Inside Llewyn Davis was robbed in the Oscar nominations. Between his love of O Brother and his attempt to co-opt the Friday Night Lights slogan “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose,” Romney demonstrates that his taste is better than you might have expected.
Romney listens to Carrie Underwood and Keith Urban, but also Willie Nelson and the Killers. He may be proud of his straitlaced image and want to emphasize that he’s “old-fashioned,” but he’s still very hip for a so-called square. The party system is toned with shades of gray. Each politician is an individual, whose individualism must be merged with and melted into the mantle of a much larger organization. Romney is a complex person, like anybody else, who has been flattened into a one-dimensional figure by necessity of the campaign. Mitt shades in some of what the election left out, which is that even if you strongly disagree with Romney’s politics, you might still find yourself siding with him in a casual debate on a pop culture podcast.
Romney might sit across the aisle from most of Hollywood, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be a good sport on a late-night talk show segment. Like John McCain before him, Romney sometimes plays against his reputation as a straight man. And because he does it sparingly, it never seems like a desperate grab for “cool” cred. Just like Barack Obama, for all his chillness, can sometimes be extremely stiff, Romney, for all his stiffness, is occasionally extremely chill. But don’t mistake his coolness for kindness: Mitt is always on his grind. His appearance on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon this week may have been framed as a lighthearted tease, but he was still there to undermine the current administration and point out its recent fuck-ups in a very public, viral way. What seems like a humanizing update on the whereabouts of a former candidate is actually a timely reminder that the 2016 election is coming up faster than you think, and Mitt Romney still very much wants to be an important voice in the race.
While Mitt is worth watching once, Penny Lane’s riveting documentary Our Nixon warrants multiple spins. Composed of home movies taken by top Nixon aides during his administration, mixed with news footage and interviews, it’s a portrait of Richard Nixon as a human being. It’s doubly a portrait of the human beings who surrounded him during one of the nation’s biggest political scandals, specifically top aides Dwight Chapin (special assistant), John Ehrlichman (domestic affairs adviser), and H.R. Haldeman (chief of staff). All three men were Super 8 buffs, early adopters who carried their devices with them everywhere and recorded nonstop. Seized during Watergate by the FBI, this is the first time those films have been seen publicly. They are amazing as time capsules and travelogues, not to mention documents of a corrupt administration that are nonetheless chock-full of strangely innocent moments.
The current NSA surveillance scandals are like a cel overlay on the events of Our Nixon. As recording technology matures, so does the human ability to record everything except the secret inner monologues that take place in the brain, and I imagine we’ll get there eventually too. Yesterday, documents provided by Edward Snowden allowed national media to break the news that the NSA and British intelligence have been using “leaky apps” like Angry Birds to surveil smartphones. Rovio, the Finnish company that created Angry Birds, admitted in 2012 that it collects personal data from users to sell to ad companies but claimed it self-polices by not using any data from children under the age of 13. The recording technology used by Nixon to secretly tape conversations was primitive compared to today, when even children under the age of 13 carry tiny personal computers that double as camera-equipped tracking devices.
Nixon, as we all know by now, had a mouth on him. The first half of Our Nixon shows the happier times; Nixon’s “silent majority” speech in 1969, dancing at daughter Tricia’s wedding, and joking around at the White House. “I’ve never laughed as much as when I worked in the Nixon White House,” says Chapin, hilariously. Then the love boat takes a sudden turn into darkness. Nixon introduces the Ray Conniff Singers at an event by saying “and if the music is square, it’s because I like it square!” to audience laughter as the singers stroll onto the stage. One of the female singers pulls out a handkerchief that’s she’s turned into a flag reading “STOP THE KILLING.” She tells Nixon to end the war, saying “bless Daniel Ellsberg” while the girl next to her glares with a plastered smile. Then the group launches into the corny Eddie Cantor classic “Ma! He’s Making Eyes at Me.” You can try to keep out reality all you want, but it’s going to leak back in eventually.
Nixon goes on a furious private rant about Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers while working for the Rand Corporation in 1971. There is audio of Nixon talking to Henry Kissinger, discussing what to do about Ellsberg. Kissinger paints Ellsberg as unhinged, while Nixon says he doesn’t want to sue the New York Times, he wants to “prosecute the goddamn pricks who gave it to them.” But Nixon doesn’t only get mad about real issues in the administration. He is just as angry about Jews and homosexuals. He goes off on a rant about how “homosexuality destroyed the Greeks” and says “Aristotle was a homo, we all know that. So was Socrates.” Not a philosophy major, then? He demands to know more about a TV show he saw that was “glorifying homosexuality” when he was “trying to tune into the damn baseball game,” and eventually it becomes clear what show he’s talking about: All in the Family. Nixon is the ur–Archie Bunker figure, and like Archie Bunker he is funny because he is so scary and real.
Nixon personally empathizes with fictional super-conservative Archie Bunker, whom he describes as a “square hardhat.” The home movies are full of ’70s squares, all pushing back harder than ever against what they saw as libertine ’60s liberalism. Our Nixon is a treasure trove of bad haircuts, high-waisted pants, and historical ephemera. And while it does go deep into the Nixon administration’s scandals, it’s never just a condemnation. There’s a lot of tenderness too; the kind that always creeps in when discussing a time gone by, even a really terrible one. Nixon isn’t evil, he’s just ignorant. He’s sometimes open-minded when you might not expect it, having a great time at a communist opera and in general during his highly publicized trip to China in 1972.
Chapin describes the experience of the China trip, saying, “It was just kinda surreal. The plane is taking off to go to China, and we’ve got a television set there [on the plane], watching us take off. Everything about that trip was televised.” Our Nixon is full of prescient quotes about surveillance and the politics of media. Nixon famously lost to John F. Kennedy in 1960 in the first widely televised presidential debate because he appeared so old and out of touch, while Kennedy seemed youthful and plugged-in. Clearly Nixon took that epic loss to heart. He became obsessed with having total control over all available forms of media. He was like a jilted lover who hoped to win back the love of the American people through one very important and modern medium: television.
While writing Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, Hunter S. Thompson bonded with Nixon by talking about their shared love of football, which transcended their opposing views on everything else. Even a bigot might be able to have a laugh at himself during All in the Family. If you’re looking for movie monsters, you won’t find them in Our Nixon or Mitt. These are films about getting to know Richard Nixon and Mitt Romney in the same way you might get to know guys from around town. They’re the other dads in the PTA. You might never be friends with them because of your diametrically opposed viewpoints on human rights, but you can still be friendly when you occasionally have to interact. You can disagree with someone’s politics and still watch TV together every once in a while.