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.’ ”
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.
“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.
It’s even truer for a campaign loser. Romney won’t run again, but Rick Santorum might, and Santorum’s guerilla war to win the Iowa caucuses is the main drama of the helpfully titled 2013 documentary Caucus. It’s not as light on policy talk as Mitt is, but it’s close. There’s one late scene where a confused woman insists that Mexicans are taking America’s trucking jobs and Santorum struggles for a way to be disgusted without alienating her, but there’s nothing about, say, Herman Cain’s regressive tax plan or the contemporary debt limit quagmire that drove the entire campaign far to the right.
None of that. The story of Caucus is that the process of running for president is completely degrading, but Rick Santorum survived it. It’s Rocky recast and set at a series of suburban Pizza Ranches. Are there 30 seconds of Santorum talking about the wrongness of legal gay marriage and abortion? Then they’re going to be matched by 60 seconds of him driving an audience to tears with the story of his stillborn son Gabriel and his disabled daughter Bella. “People say, Rick—you’re so extreme!” says Santorum after a voter asks about Gabriel. “You want to value all human life!” By that point, we’re nodding along with his sarcasm.
Director A.J. Schnack did not set out to lionize Santorum. “We thought it would be an interesting B-storyline of this guy who does everything he can and comes in last place,” Schnack told Jon Ward last year. The director showed up in Iowa, he covered the candidates, and one of them just so happened to make hundreds of campaign stops. “Quite frankly,” says 2012 Santorum communications director Hogan Gidley, “they were the only cameras that showed up for the first year.”
Santorum’s late surge changed the narrative. When he told a crowd at the Iowa State Fair that the media was ignoring his campaign—“What’s the national media have against a guy who’s beaten three Democratic incumbents in a swing state?”—it sounded weak and bitter. At the front of this documentary, it’s a moment of huh-look-at-that foreshadowing. (Santorum beat two, not three, incumbents and lost his Senate seat in 2006.) The filmmakers are there when Santorum learns that he’s surged in the final Des Moines Register poll and whispers, “It’s real.” Maybe it’s the raw emotion, maybe it’s the natural and human desire to watch Mitt Romney spend a bunch of money and lose, but in that moment, the viewer is rooting for Santorum.
“If you're not a frontrunner and there isn't a running narrative already in place, things like that can produce a positive narrative,” says Gidley. “The more you hang out with Rick, the more likable he became. You know, after the movie started playing, the old campaign team joked about it—we said we need to get about 80,000 copies of it and send it to everybody in Iowa. Hey, voters, look! He's a good dude.”
Would that work? The narrative of a documentary like Caucus or Mitt ends with a losing candidate. It’s hard to hate a loser, hard to be cynical about how he presents himself onscreen. When he’s a candidate, though—well, then he’s a vessel for the beliefs of a particular party or wing of a party. It’s harder to fool voters into liking the guy because they saw him being “real.”
But it’s been tried. When Romney ran in 2008, actually, the campaign issued occasional real-video updates of his family being ridiculous. Before Super Tuesday, voters got to see Matt Romney prank-call his dad using a soundboard of Arnold Schwarzenegger clips. “I’m going to ask you a bunch of questions,” said the voice of the California governor, “and I want to have them answered immediately.”
Romney’s deadpan confusion, packaged and distributed by the campaign, became a kind of news. So did many of Gov. Chris Christie’s town hall meetings, organized and filmed by his communications team—they’re the reason he became a national star so quickly. Christie was far more open to the press than the average presidential campaign, but the inevitable trend of all coverage is a diminution in the role of the press and more controlled “transparency” from the candidate/campaign/president. Tomorrow’s campaigns really should let in the documentary makers and put the footage out themselves. The worst that could happen is that the candidate becomes an icon.