Directed by: Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg
Written by: Eli B. Despres, Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg
Why was Anthony Weiner destroyed? If you followed the headlines behind the former New York Congressman and mayoral candidate, you know an embarrassing photo of his bulging underwear was accidentally shared on his Twitter account, which led to more embarrassing photos and online encounters he had with random women. But why was he so destroyed?
In Weiner, an extraordinary documentary from Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, the answer seems to be that he didn’t feel permanent shame for the sexting scandal. It was his refusal to abandon public life, and to try to move forward in an age where a person’s every act, especially their mistakes, can be archived and dug up online. He’s a relentless, impulsive narcissist, yes, but also an confrontational idealist. It’s what makes him both a good public speaker and a bad public figure.
Much of Weiner focuses on his failed 2013 New York City mayoral run and how the causes he championed fell to the wayside once he became an easy punchline. As much as he tried to abandon his 2011 mishaps and keep his political comeback focused on issues like affordable housing and bolstering the middle class, he attracted large media crowds mostly so they could remind him that everyone has seen his penis. Some of the movie’s most bracing moments show regular New Yorkers penetrating the media mob, shouting that they’re sick of hearing about the scandal and imploring the reporters to talk about the issues that actually affect them. Haven’t we watched him squirm and heard him apologize enough?
Weiner is a real-life horror story of the digital age, a grueling tale of the permanence of online communication and the ways it seeps into the real world. Kriegman and Steinberg make short work of his initial rise and fall from Congress in the movie’s opening minutes: it shows some of his more combative moments on the House floor and in interviews, emphasizing his natural on-camera showmanship before it all comes screeching to a halt when an explicit photo is shared on his Twitter page. As the movie’s title flashes on screen in a variety of fonts from media outlets and late night comedy shows, it’s easy to imagine the hosts, pundits and Weiner’s ideological adversaries salivating off-camera as they catch a whiff of blood.
The Weiner of Weiner is often a far-cry from the boisterous presence on TV; the many scenes of him at home wearing a dad-casual wardrobe of cargo shorts and white t-shirts while playing with his son are disarmingly effective illustrations of the every man buried beneath such sensational headlines. Even though his wife Huma Abedin, the powerful political insider known as Hillary Clinton’s right-hand woman, enters his mayoral campaign to try and quell any doubts about his candidacy, it’s never enough to extract his last name from Weinergate.
Abedin’s presence in the movie is quiet but powerful; she has a great aptitude for optics and political strategy, but it’s very clear that she’s much more uncomfortable having cameras around than her husband. Her body language in the movie is often very tense, and she sometimes glances at the camera before talking, as if remembering that she can’t speak as freely as she might want to.
In a key scene, the two of them rewatch a ferocious exchange Weiner had with a talk-show host the night before. He’s laughing and giving a play-by-play. She looks annoyed and tired, like she wants everyone to leave the room so she can scream. On a couple of different occasions during the movie, she and Weiner actually kick the camera crew and their campaign staff out so they can talk more openly.
Abedin withdraws from public campaign stops as her husband’s campaign continues to dwindle, though he stubbornly stays in the race until the bitter end. Her absence becomes a news story, an easy narrative of marital strife that reporters seem eager to pin down. Though Weiner thrives off confrontation, by the end of the movie and his campaign even he seems weary of people’s refusal to change the subject. Like Valerie Cherish of the HBO mockumentary series The Comeback, he sometimes seems to think he’s in a different movie than he actually he is. He’s hyper-sensitive to his on camera perception but, unlike his wife, doesn’t always realize that the filmmakers aren’t part of his campaign staff. As practiced as he is on camera, when he’s asked by one of the filmmakers why he’s letting them film it, he gives a brief look of stunned dismay.