Why Campaign Documentaries Inevitably Lionize Losers

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Feb. 4 2014 12:14 PM

Campaign Vérité

Political documentaries are the best thing that can happen to a losing candidate.

Mitt Romney, right, and his son, Craig Romney in Netflix's original documentary, Mitt.
Mitt Romney, right, and his son Craig Romney in Netflix's original documentary, Mitt.

Courtesy of Netflix

A few nights ago, Jeff Smith slid into bed and hit play on the new documentary Mitt. He asked his wife, Theresa, if she wanted to join him in reliving Mitt Romney’s six-year quest for the presidency.

“She said, ‘Of course not,’ ” remembers Smith. “So I started watching it. I got to the part where Romney was being made up, and he said ‘Careful, don’t break it!’ I turned to my wife and said, ‘Baby, you should watch this—he’s kind of funny!’ And she said, ‘Fuck no.’ ”

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a former Slate political reporter. 

Theresa Smith was missing out on an incredibly meta night of movie-watching. Jeff Smith, who’s now an urban policy professor at the New School in New York, used to be a rising star of Missouri politics. In 2004, he ran for Congress and let a documentary crew film his narrow—much, much closer than expected—loss in the primary to a member of the Carnahan dynasty. The result was the campaign documentary Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?, an instant genre classic that probably helped Smith win a state Senate seat in 2006.

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“I had my organizers signing up volunteers when moviegoers would come out of the theaters in St. Louis,” says Smith. “As soon as I was sworn into the Senate, I was asked to join the party campaign committee, and that had to be because they knew about the movie and figured I could raise money.”

Three years later, Smith was in federal prison. During that heroic 2004 campaign, he’d filed a false affidavit about an independent group that sent out helpful mailers. Smith spent 366 days in jail, but he bounced back quickly. His movie-won celebrity did not hurt. “In prison, I got letters from someone every week, pretty much, from someone who just watched the movie,” he says. “I still get really, really heartwarming notes from strangers. I Skype into 30-40 classes a year of political science professors who teach the movie.”

An honest documentary can turn any politician into an icon, as long as he doesn’t act like a monster. This is what Mitt Romney’s been learning since the rollout of Mitt—a campaign that easily eclipses that of the Netflix-owned The Square, which is nominated for an Oscar. Romney appeared at his film’s premiere at Sundance, basking in possibly the kindest coverage he’d gotten since he ran the 2002 Winter Olympics.

“Not only did Mr. Romney’s team often fail to convey the full depth of its candidate,” wrote the New York Times Romney correspondent Ashley Parker, “but he himself could not seem to transcend the barrier between his public and private personas.” Romney is suddenly appearing on cool late-night talk shows and at the Super Bowl. He is getting asked whether he’d run for president again. Hey, he is even leading the polls in New Hampshire. (For the record, his answer: “Oh, no, no, no. No, no, no, no, no. No, no, no.”)

From cycle to cycle, presidential campaigns brainstorm new ways to limit access for the media while concocting an appearance of access. The documentary, for all its risks, is a perfect way to do that. Filmmakers need a narrative. The rush of a campaign, the punishing, fatiguing task of flogging oneself to voter after voter, is a ready-made hero’s journey. That’s been true since Robert Drew tagged along with John F. Kennedy’s campaign in the 1960 Democratic primary. It was just as true for Barack Obama, who let a crew film the eventual HBO documentary By the People, as it was for Romney.

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