Mitt Romney's Hero's Journey

The GOP nominee as a screenplay protagonist.


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.