SALT LAKE CITY — A few hours earlier, Mitt Romney was marveling at his big crowds and chewing over lines in his victory speech. But now, in a Boston hotel suite, the camera zooms in on a roomful of family and advisers. The would-be president is on the couch, an iPad on his lap, and asking, “So what do you think you say in a concession speech?”
His wife, Ann, arrives and sits down next to him. “What’s going on?”
“We’re writing a concession speech,” Mitt says.
“It’s finished?” she asks.
“My time on the stage is over, guys,” the Republican nominee says.
Ann stares ahead, stricken. Their sons are in disbelief. The grandkids are crying. The nation, the Romneys are learning, had rejected them.
The dramatic collapse of Romney’s six-year quest for the presidency is revealed in a new documentary, “MITT,” a rare, intimate look into how a family endures the 24-7 psycho-drama that is a modern U.S. presidential campaign.
The film, which premiered here Friday night as part of the Sundance Film Festival and will be available on Netflix starting Jan. 24, provides a stark contrast to the stilted, robotic caricature of Romney the politician. It shows him as a three-dimensional figure — devoted to the Mormon faith that he played down on the campaign trail, capable of flashes of raw emotion and often harboring doubts about his political abilities.
The documentary captures the Romney family in moments of hopeful prayer and tearful anguish. There are glimmers of joy and celebration, but more often there are fatigue and frustration. “How many more debates do I have to go to?” Mitt blurts out at one point.
Filmmaker Greg Whiteley gained extraordinary access to the Romneys, capturing them during private moments — in hotel rooms, vans, planes, hallways and elevators — at critical junctures of Romney’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns.
In 2009, after viewing Whiteley’s footage from the first campaign, Romney’s campaign advisers would not allow him to release the film. But now that Romney has run his last campaign, the family gave Whiteley its blessing. Romney and his family convened Friday night at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center for the film’s first public screening.
The documentary reveals a human, sometimes playful side of Romney that his campaign largely kept buttoned up. He laughs and he cries. He kneels down to pray and he comforts his crying wife in his lap. He calls his large extended family “the gopher village” and scoops up his grandchildren in monster hugs.
He goes sledding wearing gloves held together with duct tape, and he places a hot iron to his wrist to straighten out his tuxedo shirt cuff. He bickers with son Tagg about whether the Delta Shuttle terminal at New York’s LaGuardia Airport contains a large food court. (Tagg was right; it does not.) As his face is applied with television makeup, he quips, “Be careful not to break my hair.”
In 2008, when adviser Beth Myers tells him he won the primary in his native Michigan, he’s wearing only a bathrobe. “We won one!” he exclaims. “Can you believe it?”
The film also shows Romney’s imperfections. On stage, he’s a sunny optimist (“Believe in America” was his slogan). But in private, he’s gloomier, predicting the worst outcomes. When he returned backstage following his second debate with President Obama — the one where he flubbed an answer about the Benghazi attacks — his family tells him he did a good job, but Romney rolls his eyes and shakes his head.
“I’ll bet it’s 70-30 in the polls,” he says. “80-20? 90-10?”
Romney gets testy in 2008 when David Chalian of ABC News explains the “dining room table conversation” concept of that night’s debate. “A dining room conversation is among members of the family,” Romney says, getting hot. “These are all people competing for the same job, all right?”
Romney also is obsessed with his caricature from the 2008 campaign — “The Flippin’ Mormon,” he says over and over again. He solicits advice from his team. “I won’t fix the Mormon side,” he says. Of the “flip-flopper” label, he says: “There’s nothing I can do. ‘He was at Burger King last night, McDonald’s the night before.’ . . . It’s so damaging to me.”
But “MITT” is not a film about campaign strategy. Little time is spent on issues such as Romney’s “47 percent” comments and the ensuing damage to his campaign, although one scene shows Romney rehearsing lines about it as Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) stands in for Obama.
Mostly, the film is about the Romney family’s travails — starting around Christmas 2006, when Romney grabs a legal pad and convenes a family meeting around the fire at his Utah ski chalet to chart the pros and cons of running for president.
“You’d be bald in about a month,” son Josh says. Josh’s wife, holding a baby, says, “I think emotionally it would just be hard on everybody.”
Says eldest son Tagg: “If you don’t win, we’ll still love you. The country may think of you as a laughingstock, and we’ll know the truth.”
On Oct. 3, 2012, the night of his first debate with Obama, Romney whistles around his Denver hotel suite picking up trash after his grandkids. He scarfs down a bowl of takeout pasta. “Get a little something in your tummy,” Ann instructs him.
“So,” Romney asks her, “any advice?”
Ann takes a long pause. “Conviction from your heart as to why you’re running,” she says. “Conviction that this country’s on the wrong course and that you are able to put it on the right one. Conviction. Complete power from within your heart. That’s all.”
Son Matt asks whether Obama intimidates him. “Sure. Are you kidding?” Romney says. Ann interjects sternly: “You should not be intimidated by him. I’m not joking, Mitt. You should not be — at all.”
The debate later that night would become the finest moment of his campaign.
At a fundraiser, Romney raises his hand and makes an “L” shape over his forehead, a forecast of what might happen. “Loser for life,” he says. “Mike Dukakis — you know, he can’t get a job mowing lawns.”
Fast forward to Nov. 6, 2012, when Romney and his family gather at a Westin in Boston to watch their White House dreams evaporate, swing state by swing state.
Only a few hours earlier, Romney is so sure of winning that he reads aloud lines of his victory speech: “. . . that freedom so integral to the American experience will again propel us forward to new heights of discovery, to new horizons of opportunity and to new dimensions of prosperity.”
A wrenching scene plays out in the hotel suite that night. Son Ben is on a laptop in the corner studying vote tallies. Granddaughter Chloe breaks the news that Wisconsin is gone. “It’s down to Ohio, folks,” Romney concludes.
Campaign manager Matt Rhoades comes in to say that they’ve come up short there, too. He says adviser Ed Gillespie — now a U.S. Senate candidate in Virginia — called Karl Rove to tell him that the Ohio numbers won’t add up and to back down on Fox News.
With Romney pondering his concession speech, Stuart Stevens, the campaign’s chief strategist, suggests he play “a pastoral role, not a political role, and that part of what you’re [doing] I think is soothing people.”
Romney isn’t having any of it. “To get up and soothe is not my inclination,” he says. He is fearful the country will reach “the tipping point” and fall into decline under Obama. So he writes a quick speech saying that his “principles endure” and that he and Ann will “earnestly pray” for Obama and for the nation.
“We’re 593 words,” Romney says. “That’s about six minutes.”
Two days later, Mitt and Ann drive themselves home. They pull into the garage of their Belmont, Mass., townhouse, take off their jackets and head into the living room.
For the first time in forever, nobody else is around. Mitt just stares out the window, and Ann, looking at him, simply sighs.