One month before the voters pull levers and punch ballots, key events in the personal timelines of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are still hazy, and unnecessarily so. It’s not exactly news that, as a Mormon missionary in France, Mitt Romney willed himself back to life after a car accident in which a police officer wrote “Il est mort” on his passport. It’s also a known known that President Obama’s relationship with his mother was so distant that he didn’t thank her in his high school yearbook, but offered gratitude to his grandparents — and to Ray, “a hippie who could get them the good stuff,” according to biographer David Maraniss.
The Washington Post reporter is among the various journalists, columnists, biographers and other original sources who chime in and add authority to “The Choice 2012.” This election-year, PBS “Frontline” franchise excels at surfacing and synthesizing the personal details that make the partisan clash more of a human story. The producers blend news clips, vintage video and in-person interviews to construct dual portraits that find their own rhythm, like a political junkie’s remix.
The clever juxtaposition of video makes the men more vivid. In one montage, college-age Romney counterprotests anti-Vietnam War protesters at Stanford; looking like the eldest boy on “My Three Sons,” he scowls at his peers. Fifteen years later, and just down the California coast, there’s Obama, grinning in indelible photos on the campus of Occidental College, where his mahalo vibe is evident behind mirrored shades.
These Frontline political documentaries are awards magnets that have garnered Emmys and Peabodys and a Pulitzer, if not major audiences. They are assiduously fair, if rarely artful. They lean hard on archival footage — like, in “The Choice,” Harlem street scenes during Obama’s years at Columbia, or Fanueil Hall replays of Romney’s debates and bill signings. The visuals are thus a step up from C-SPAN, but in visual language that is, above all, trustworthy.
Michael Kirk, the show’s guiding hand, never steers toward either candidate, but also spares neither. What’s seen as the Republican nominee’s goody-goody nature is dissected, along with his wealth and resistance to persistent questioning. During a private meeting in Boston a half-dozen years ago, Iowa GOP powerbroker Douglas Gross dared to ask the sitting governor about his anticipated liabilities, as seen by Iowans: “Mormon, Massachusetts, multimillionaire.” According to Gross, both Mitt and Ann Romney bristled at what proved to be a prescient question.
Obama is presented as unfailingly “laid back,” even when that quality propels him toward failure. Commentators show how his refusal to fit any stereotype let’s him stay above the political fray. When he becomes editor of the Harvard Law Review, he is quick to say his inclusion means the disadvantaged will have a new voice in an exclusive forum. But we hear from his liberal, African American classmates how they were shunned as Obama instead courted conservative peers. It’s among several moments that suggest “his intense desire to avoid being trapped,” a theme offered by Maraniss.