Election 2012

Mitt Romney's Hero's Journey

The GOP nominee as a screenplay protagonist.

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Mitt Romney is the protagonist of his very own movie. Except it's not a movie. It's the 2012 presidential campaign.

These days nearly all major Hollywood productions follow a variation on the three act structure developed starting in the 1970s by screenplay theorists like Syd Field. It's a formulized pop variant on what mythologist Joseph Campbell called The Hero's Journey, and it's the framework for just about every major blockbuster of the last three decades.

In the first act, we meet our hero in the midst of his everyday life. He has an opportunity to change his life which, after a bit of debate, he decides to pursue. In the second act, our hero is tested. Somewhere in the middle he experiences a great success, and the stakes are raised. But the victory is false, and things get progressively worse until the hero reaches his lowest point. Hitting bottom spurs a period of reflection that helps the hero to truly understand who he is, which eventually leads to a plan to achieve victory using all that he has learned—a plan which he successfully enacts in the third act.

In recent years, screenwriter Blake Snyder has divided the structure into a series of 15 necessary story points known as a "beat sheet." But the basic three act outline remains the same: Thesis. Antithesis. Synthesis. 

And so far, Mitt Romney's campaign seems to be hitting just about every major beat.

The first act began before the official start of the campaign. We watched as Romney, who failed to get the 2008 GOP presidential nomination, returned for one last shot at the big score: a spot at the top of the presidential ticket, and a chance at the Oval Office.

Like all good heroes, Romney approached his run with some uncertainty, and a period of debate over the possible risks was necessary before the journey could begin. There was never any question about whether he was going to run. Instead, the question was how: Would he distance himself from RomneyCare, his most prominent legislative achievement, as many conservatives urged him to do? Or would he embrace his record and run as moderate?

The second act, which typically takes up the bulk of the screenplay, kicked off when Romney formally announced his intention to run for the GOP nomination. There were doubts among many—even amongst Republicans—but also an assumption that Romney was the frontrunner.

The first half of Act II is often referred to as "fun and games." It's the part of the story where we see the hero making the most of his new opportunity, embracing the power it gives him and dispatching enemies and obstacles with ease. There are real obstacles, but nothing too taxing, and eventually it leads to a major victory. Sure enough, that's exactly what we got from Romney during the GOP primary campaign, in which he handily bested his often ridiculous GOP opponents and went on to win the nomination.

Which brings us to the second half of Act II, typically labeled "the bad guys close in." The stakes are raised. The journey gets more difficult. The protagonist is tested as never before. Having won the nomination, Romney proceeded to encounter dramatically increased skepticism from his own party. And the Obama administration's attacks grew more fierce, zeroing in on his wealth and his past as a businessman.

Eventually it always leads to the hero's "lowest point"—an all-is-lost moment in which it looks as if the protagonist may be truly done for. After struggling all summer and heading up a lackluster convention, Romney had exactly that moment last month with the release of a secretly recorded tape showing him dismissing the 47 percent of Americans who pay no income tax as people "who believe that they are victims." Those people just weren't worth his time. "My job is not to worry about those people," he said. "I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."

Campaign watchers declared the race over. Romney, they insisted, had lost. The campaign's bouts of internal angst and self-reflection gave us what in screenplays is usually referred to as the "long dark night of the soul."

Which of course makes a perfect segue into the third act: a final-stretch comeback in which the main character discovers his inner strength, goes on to face down his opponent, and—perhaps—win the day.

So far we've only had one debate, but Romney emerged the clear victor by combining the most effective parts of his experience: the data-driven presentation skills he learned as a businessman, the fierce attacks on president Obama he focused on while trying to appeal to conservatives, the moderate image he relied on to win votes as governor of Massachusetts. Now Romney, for the first time, is up in the polls.

Will he prove victorious? At this point it's still too early to tell. Screenplays don't always require the protagonist to win at the end. Sometimes the hero finds out that the goal he thought he was after was not the goal he really wanted. Instead, screenplays merely require the hero to grow and change—to experience an arc and character development—that allows him to better know himself.

No doubt that will be a tough finale to write for a protagonist like Mitt Romney, who so often seems to lack core political convictions, shifting personas and positions to reflect the mood of the moment rather than a true self. But perhaps it's fitting for this Campbellian hero's journey, which was after all first described in a book with a title that seems to fit Romney rather well: The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

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  1. Suderman remains King of the Alt-text!

    1. WTF? He changed it! The first one was better.

      1. So there is a different alt-text to the picture in the front page link from the one on this page? Sneaky bastage, Suderman.

        1. One for the blog preview. One for those who click through to the article. Call it an Easter Egg. Or alternate alt. text?

          1. What was it?

            1. oh…

          2. The blog preview alt-text is one for the ages! I always watch the start of that movie just to hear that quote.

  2. This dynamic is present in stories from long before the 1970s…

    1. That’s correct. As Campbell pointed out in the 40s, it’s present in many lasting historical myths. But screenplay theorists didn’t start popularizing this stuff until the 1970s, and Hollywood didn’t start explicitly, intentionally setting out to structure the vast majority of major movies this way until folks like Field and later McKee came along.

      1. I hate Campbell simply for his worship of Lucas and how Lucas jumped full force into the myth making business and ended up destroying everything that might have been good in the first 2 Star Wars movies.

        The insights into Movie that those like Campbell make that all movies follow the same general structure is ultimately useless.

        Yes they all have the same structure yet many of them suck ass. You may as well be pointing out that movies require moving pictures. Obviously it is not the basic structure we as viewers are after.

        1. You mean in ROTJ? It wasn’t that bad. I don’t think the Ewoks factor into the Hero Arc model, anyway.

          The prequels weren’t really telling the story of a hero so I don’t think Lucas was going that direction.

          1. Absolutely nothing Luke did mattered. He could have had anal sex with the emperor and the events still would have played out the same.

            Ewoks win/Shield comes down/Lando makes death star go boom

            The emperor/Darth Vader/Luke were only spectators.

            1. Unclear, I think. There was an evacuation of the Death Star when destruction was imminent, so the Emperor could conceivably have escaped.
              Just sayin’.
              Nevertheless, like you, I’ve a library’s worth of criticism for that finale’s narrative clumsiness. Not to mention Campbell’s peculiar regard for an epic cliche.

              1. For all we know the flash of blue gas was only a Sith illusion and he DID escape. And Lucas will change his mind and do Episode 7: Reflux of the Emperor.

      2. Yes, I guess there’s a difference between these themes naturally arising in fiction that later becomes popular, and being engineered to fit that mold.

        Though I wonder to what extent earlier writers and playwrights were intuitively aware of it, and consciously using this framework, but didn’t bother writing these insights down for others to see.

  3. Inevitably, the Lamentations of the Wimmens will be his crowning achievement.

    1. I thought Romney would hear the lamentations of their wymyn.

      1. Lamentation of the Mormon? I got nothing.

        I did one once with tequila:

        Mongol General: Wrong! Conan! What is best in life?

        Conan: To crush the agave, see it dripping before you, and to mix the fermentation with some lemon.

        Mongol General: That is good! That is good.

        1. That’s stupid. You’re stupid.

          1. You just have no appreciation for manly things like tequila.

            1. Again, Pro L, there is no justice. In a better world, total threadwinner.

              1. I can’t get no respect.

  4. Obama Doom: Now they will know why they are afraid of the dark. Now they learn why they fear the night.

  5. These days nearly all major Hollywood productions follow a variation on the three act structure developed starting in the 1970s by screenplay theorists like Syd Field.

    Movies suck. Their length and therefore there structure is dependent on how long someone can sit comfortably in a theater seat.

    1. Which seems to vary from 90 minutes to 3 hours.

  6. WI, PA, and OH just switched from lean Obama to toss up on the RCP map.

    This must be the part of the story where the antagonist notices he’s got a problem.

    http://www.realclearpolitics.c…..e_map.html

    1. PA Democrats seem unduly happy with the fact that they won’t need IDs to vote in the election. Mrs Biden was giving a speech at a rally in Harrisburg yesterday to that effect, and the crowd cheered like crazy every time she mentioned the fact that they don’t need IDs.

      1. Who knew that Pennsylvania Democrats were actually freedom fighters, campaigning against government ID cards?

        1. They’re OK with requiring ID to buy a gun, get a job, open a bank account, enter a courthouse, or attend an Obama rally.

  7. Eventually it always leads to the hero’s “lowest point”?an all-is-lost moment in which it looks as if the hero may be truly done for.

    I fail to see how Romney’s story is any different then the story of 2008 Obama?

    In fact if one looks at 2008’s polls you can see the same switch that Romney had at about the same time.

    I guess one should expect the stories of two empty suits essentially winning because of the failures of the previous administration to be the same.

    1. I think the parallel may be that a crisis hit the former leader.

      For McCain, it was the TARP debacle, which really pissed off his base.

      For Obama, it was the debate which really demoralized his base. For extra lulz, Obama now has a second debacle/scandal to deal with, as well: Benghazi . . . wait for it . . . nope, not gonna say it.

      Both hit early October, an waddayaknow, the polls moved.

      1. McCain had a bunch of them. His campaign was left for dead in the summer of 2007 when he fired essentially everyone after discovering there was no money left.

        Also he had a minor embarrassment with not being able to win majorities in most of the primaries after he had already clinched the nomination and only Paul was officially running still.

  8. Romney’s screenplay parallels Birth of a Nation, doesn’t it?

    1. Nah, Waterworld. Really long, boring, over-hyped and extremely expensive.

  9. I take issue with this article. Not so much over the article itself, which is amusing if not enlightening, but that image is just WRONG. Not only is it a Photoshop hack job, but Conan deserves better.

    1. Mitt has a little armpit hair problem.

      Well, not so little.

  10. Just wait ’til Romney appoints Jesse Ventura to the Supreme Court.

  11. Look, every Mormon gets his own planet. Romney just happened to choose this one.

    1. Ssince Mormons get their planet after they die, does that mean that Romney’s dead? We’ve had a black president, several functionally retarded presidents, so why not the first Zombie president?

      1. And apparently I occasionally type with a lisp.

        1. And I forget to type in clearly designated possessive word formations. I hate using my pinky to make the ”’ character. It feels lurid.

      2. If I had to make an educated guess on Romney undead disposition, the immaculate hair and good looks suggest a vampire, however, they tend to be laid back. That drive and hint of a chip on his shoulder though is more in line with that of a revenant.

        1. What? No, this is much easier than that. His hair is perfect. Therefore, he’s a werewolf.

          1. Lycanthrope’s are not undead. It would be counter productive for a Mormon to be one because he would never die and get his own planet. That would be kind of like the worst of all possibilities for Mormon.

            He has the look though.

            1. Lycanthrope’s are not undead.

              Yes they are.

          2. But werewolves aren’t undead. Maybe a werewolf/ vampire hybrid?

            1. An abomination. That explains it.

            2. He’s a werewolf. Hard stop. I saw him drinking a pi?a colada at Trader Vics in Sarasota. His hair was perfect.

      3. The term is “exalted.”

  12. the basic three act outline remains the same: Thesis. Antithesis. Synthesis.

    Totally out dated. should be

    SPLOSIONS!SPLOSIONS!SPLOSIONS!

    1. You forgot the flashbacks.

  13. Does anyone hate the reload button on Firefox as much as I do? They fucked that shit up and then went in for the kill.

    1. I save all my hate for the Flash player. Adobe has managed to turn a decent product to shit.

      1. Remember Netscape?

        With each update it got more and more bloated and slower and slower.

        1. It got so bad, I actually used IE preferentially.

          1. Ahh, the browser wars… back when someone thought that you could control the media by controlling what TV people buy…

        2. Firefox descended from Netscape, isn’t it?

          1. Yes, and then in a bit of turnaround AOL (who bought Netscape) came out with a new version of Netscape which was based on Firefox (Netscape 8.0 8.1). I actually worked at “Netscape” (really just a small team within an AOL office at the old Compuserve HQ in Columbus Oh) but not on the Browser team, I was working on Netscape ISP which AOL started as a low cost ISP to compete with NetZero.

      2. I save my hate for having to log in to Reason every time I change stories in HR

  14. Actually I kinda think that the media are trying to cram the election into that neat narrative structure by playing up and down various events. So to create a “moment of crisis”, they exaggerate how badly Romney is doing following a post-convention bounce for Obama, and make it appear as of “all is lost”. Then turn around and blow way up a good debate performance to make it seem as if the “hero” has emerged victorious after his “dark night of the soul”.

    It’s not that Romney’s campaign is ACUTALLY following tihs narrative, it’s just the way the media likes to tell a story. So they will find events that fit that narrative and play them up, while playing down events that don’t.

    1. As I recall, during the Bush-Kerry election, CBS had Kerry farther down that the other networks before the debates. Once the debates happened and Kerry was being compared to Roman orators, CBS started showing a big Kerry bounce and lead. Meanwhile, the other networks showed relatively muted changes throughout. The stories on CBS’ website reflected this more dramatic data.

      Maybe everyone else if following along.

    2. I actually like this theory.

    3. I don’t think MSM sees Romney as the hero.

      1. I find it baffling as well. But they do really like a good story.

  15. But wasn’t “The Man Who Saved the Salt Lake Games” and “The Father of ObamaCare” and “The ShovelMaster of the Big Dig” already a national hero?

  16. See that makes no sense at all to me man, none.

    http://www.EasyPrivacy.tk

  17. I can’t wait for Romney to convince the ugly girl that shes beautiful if she just takes off her glasses and lets her hair down!

    1. That only works in stories where the ugly girl is the protagonist. Usually the guy doing the convincing is a figure of admiration.

      Maybe Barack Obama could have a moment where he invites Elizabeth Warren over to the White House and romances her in the rose garden, where she takes off her glasses and lets her hair down.

      Then Michelle and her could do a workout montage.

  18. He’s still a douchebag.

    -jcr

  19. Eventually it always leads to the hero’s “lowest point”?an all-is-lost moment in which it looks as if the protagonist may be truly done for. After struggling all summer and heading up a lackluster convention, Romney had exactly that moment last month with the release of a secretly recorded tape showing him dismissing the 47 percent of Americans who pay no income tax as people “who believe that they are victims

    LMAO

    Bravo, Mr McArdle, that Andy Sullivan level retardation.

  20. Well,it’s very good.I quite agree with your point of view.

  21. Yes, I guess there’s a difference between these themes naturally arising in fiction that later becomes popular, and being engineered to fit that mold.

    Though I wonder to what extent earlier writers and playwrights were intuitively aware of it, and consciously using this framework, but didn’t bother writing these insights down for others to see.

  22. Suderman remains King of the Alt-text!

  23. There is no connecting or bonding with the People that will correct Mr. Romney’s human deficiencies.
    http://toyconnectionactionfigu…..ibles.info

  24. As a Mormon shouldn’t he be authorized several more B-Movie “Sister Actresses”?

  25. Funny that no one’s considered that the msm narrative is making this their hero’s lowest point. The Romney surge is the point where the bad guy appears to win. which makes him overconfident and stupid so the good guy can come back and fix everything.

  26. And if Elohim will not listen, then to hell with you!

  27. He looks like an hero through his debates and beating Obama with his words.

  28. I did not care for him, is expected from this situation, I did not really say, fell from the capital. Even if there http://www.cheapuggsbootsforwomen.org/ was a gun in the hand must not mean Doude Guo Zhang Yan. Thought this, I saw the boss Zhang nodded. Heroes do not eat immediate loss anyway, now she brings those things that I did not need Senate combined.

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