What ‘When Mitt Romney Came to Town’ Can Teach Us About Political Documentaries

When Mitt Romney Came to Town, the short documentary about Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital being touted by the Newt Gingrich-backing and Sheldon Adelson-funded Winning Our Future Super PAC, has raised questions about everything from the clout of those organizations to the accuracy of the charges of job-cutting against Romney, the Republican frontrunner. But it’s also a good example of the tension between good political ad-making and good documentary-making. And as Super PACs and well-funded candidates increasingly make and release long specials, whether for the web or television, as President Obama and Vice President Biden’s campaign did in 2008, it’s worth examining this odd marriage, to see what works as argument and what works as art.

It’s disappointing how heavily When Mitt Romney Came to Town relies on dog-whistles. The documentary fans flames of elitism, noting of Romney that “he had a Harvard pedigree and he was on a tear,” and closing out with footage of him speaking French as if it’s an indication of something sinister. There are stock images of bearded men gleefully smoking cigars that don’t land nearly as hard as Romney and his Bain colleagues posing jokily with bills. When it comes to its section on the fate of Kay-Bee toys, there are even scenes of sad-eyed children staring mournfully at televisions.

That lack of specificity is a larger problem with the movie. One of the earliest segments is the most interesting, in part because the workers talk in some detail about the changes Bain made to their work processes. “One of the first things that they did when they started, when we became part of the corporation, was to start cheapening the product,” one of the interviewees complained. “You’d have to hurry faster through your work,” Tommy Jones says, explaining that the rushed production times meant that the company sometimes shipped out equipment without parts. Those kinds of details make the case against corporate raiding even more damning. It would be one thing if companies were just finding inefficiencies and improving production with layoffs and reorganizations. But it’s worth making clear that layoffs are part of a larger philosophy of stripping down companies to their constituent parts and extracting the value from them. And it might have helped to identify the people interviewed for the movie more clearly by their job function, providing a sense that they had more expertise than the people who took their companies out from under them.

Slogans are powerful, of course, and the documentary relies heavily on them. But sometimes reaching for rhetorical force means the movie gives up a chance to explain how systems work, as when the movie declares that a tech start-up was “helped by a favorable rating from Bain’s Wall Street friends,” but doesn’t bother exploring those connections and processes. When a worker named Shannon explains that “I was pregnant at the time, and at the meeting they told us we were all fired, that we had to reapply for our jobs,” it’s incidentally powerful, but it might have been more so if the movie could demonstrate a pattern of terminations of people whose insurance was about to get expensive.

When Mitt Romney Came to Town may founder on its factual errors before it truly takes off. There’s no question that there’s a story to be told about Mitt Romney’s time at Bain Capital, and that story may well damn his presidential ambitions. The only thing at issue is how to tell it in every format from 30 seconds to two hours. Fact-checking and specificity to back up the sound bites seem like they’d be good places to start.