Every weekend, we pick a movie you can stream that dovetails with current events. Old, new, blockbuster, arthouse: They’re all fair game. What you can count on is a weekend watch that sheds new light on the week that was. The movie of the week for September 10 through 16 is Mitt (2014), which is available to stream on Netflix.
History may be written by the winners, but Americans have an appetite for the losers’ stories, too. And after winning the popular vote but losing the Electoral College in her 2016 presidential run, Hillary Clinton is about to test just how big that appetite is. On September 12, Clinton’s book What Happened will be published by Simon & Schuster, and excerpts from the book suggest it’s going to be a no-holds-barred barnburner offering her side of the story and targeting not just Donald Trump, but also her Democratic primary opponent Bernie Sanders. And while the party seems divided over whether Clinton’s upcoming book tour is a good idea right now, it’s almost certain that those who already didn’t like her will find fresh justification for their stance.
It’s no surprise that the book and its author are meeting this sort of uneasiness, given the strangeness of the campaign season the book chronicles and the ongoing chaos in American politics. But for a look at a rather different approach to telling the story of the one who lost — and a surprising reminder of how much has changed in not too many years — we can turn to Mitt, the 2014 Netflix documentary that chronicled former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s failed attempt to nab the 2008 Republican nomination for president, followed by his failed presidential run against an incumbent Barack Obama in 2012.
Director Greg Whiteley caught wind that Romney was thinking of making his bid even before the 2008 primaries ramped up, and he wound up following the candidate for six years, through both of his attempts at the presidency. Billed as being “intimate” and having “unprecedented access” to Romney, the film actually holds the candidate at a bit of a remove. He prepares for debates, hits the campaign trail, travels and prays with his family, and expresses some doubts about his own efficacy as a candidate, but there are no big revelations.
Critics largely praised the film, but they didn’t find it particularly illuminating. Few of Romney’s opponents doubted his devotion to family or basic human decency, even if they criticized him as aloof, but the film focused on those qualities anyhow.
But some critics wondered whether the bigger story of the film, and the bigger meaning of Romney’s defeat and Obama’s victory, was lost on its subject, who along with his family viewed his willingness to serve as president as a matter of duty and responsibility. Writing about the film in The Atlantic after its release, Mark Bowden captures what the film seems to accidentally reveal about this attitude:
The hurt reaction to his defeat is the response of a family whose generous gift has just been rudely cast aside. They are disbelieving. There is an ever-present patina of sweetness and grace—they are, after all, on camera—but beneath it is a deep and unmistakable arrogance. How could the body politic be so ungrateful, so misguided? How could they not see? Nowhere in the stunned hotel room does anyone even fleetingly consider that there might have been something lacking in Mitt, in them, or in their vaguely defined vision for the country. Nowhere is the thought that Barack Obama ran a better campaign, that his unique personal history, his vision for America, was somehow more in tune with the 21st century electorate, or that the American people had made even a defensible choice. No. This is not just a rejection of Mitt, but a disastrous national blunder.
And only months later, in early 2015, with Romney toying with yet another bid — this time against the candidate-apparent Hillary Clinton — The Week’s Ryu Spaeth wrote that Romney’s attempt to rebrand himself as “authentic” was based on “a fatal misreading of Mitt the movie.”
From the distance of a couple years, and in the context of all that’s happened since, it’s tempting to wonder whether Romney should have made more of a run for his party’s nomination in 2016. But the bigger question right now is who, exactly, benefits from telling the stories of loss. Is it the candidate? The people who voted for or against the candidate? The winner? The country at large? Historians? Pundits?
With Clinton taking her own, more pointed run at exploring what happened, the example of Mitt — and Romney’s possible failure to understand what the movie really shows — is an important lesson. What Clinton, her party, and her supporters might learn from the extraordinary, brutal election of 2016 is still very much up for grabs. And sometimes the telling of history has a big effect on the future.
Watch the trailer for Mitt: