In the age of reality television, where no humiliation or personal flaw goes unnoticed, Anthony Weiner revels in all the merciless attention.
Weiner, directed by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Sternberg. Screening as part of IFF Boston at the Somerville Theatre, Davis Square, Somerville, MA, on May 2.
By Neil Giordano
Not many documentaries about politics will make you laugh as much as Weiner. Except that by laughing along with this film, you might become part of the joke.
Weiner, which screened as the opening night headliner at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, NC, is a first-time effort by filmmakers Josh Kriegman and Elyse Sternberg. We watch the rise and fall — and rise and fall — of the eponymous Anthony Weiner: brash Democratic star, New York City’s youngest City Council member, seven-term congressman from Brooklyn, and touted future presidential candidate. After resigning in disgrace from Congress in 2011 following revelations of sexting with numerous women, the film picks up Weiner’s story during his comeback mayoral campaign in 2014 when he became an unexpected frontrunner. But then a second round of allegations brings a new meltdown. What starts as a potential story arc of redemption turns to utter ignominy and laughable absurdity.
The filmmakers were given unrelenting access to Weiner and his family (Kriegman was Weiner’s congressional chief-of-staff before the first fall), and at times we wonder why the politician would want to document his own personal as well as public humiliation. Kriegman (off-camera) even asks the $50,000 question during a particularly awkward episode, “Why have you let me film this?” Weiner doesn’t give us an answer directly, but Weiner does.
We see the subject come into focus as a case-study narcissist, someone who loves to see himself on the screen and in the public eye. In the age of reality television, where no humiliation or personal flaw escapes mentions, Weiner revels in the voyeuristic attention. The fact that he’s also a talented and brilliant politician is no coincidence and, in fact, it feeds his raging narcissism. His confidence and exuberance and unconventional sex appeal are, to his mind, the ticket to the big-time of liberal politics. And this is the Weiner we see throughout the film, revered for his ability to fight tirelessly for liberal causes — single-payer healthcare, low- and moderate-income housing, LGBT equality — with a multicultural coalition of voters behind him (a diversity mirrored in his campaign team). His in-your-face New York attitude and passion for progressive causes elevate his campaign beyond the usual platitudes and bromides of politics. When he says he believes in something, you believe him, and you believe in him.
Yet these same qualities, and the resulting affection from his voters, create a man who feeds on their adoration and on his own righteousness. The hubris generated by his charisma leads him down the path to his political doom. It’s not the womanizing that brings about his fall (this is an only-in-the-twenty-first-century political scandal; he never met or had physical contact with any women). What undercuts his campaign is his dissembling, his waffling about just how many, how often, and when these online trysts started and ended. He frets about “the timeline” as do his long-suffering communications director and campaign manager. Weiner never quite goes as far as to define what “is” is, but we don’t get a full accounting of any of the important lingering questions. Weiner seems unable to provide a straight answer to anyone. There are even moments in the film when Weiner is glued to his phone, silent. And we can’t help but wonder — business or pleasure?
Our not entirely wholesome curiosity is complicated by the presence of Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin, chief aide to Hillary Clinton. Besides serving as a much-needed foil to Weiner’s brashness, her presence in the film makes the point that Weiner’s political life isn’t the only thing at risk. (And its not her political life we’re necessarily thinking about either.) There’s the fate of their marriage and the future of their young son, who coos in the background while his father strategizes how to continue his campaign after everyone tells him it is time to quit. If Weiner is our ‘tragic’ hero, Abedin is our quiet Cassandra. Initially, she is stoic amid the insanity swirling around her, that reserve giving way to pained resignation as she recedes from the campaign and from the film in the final act. She squelches easy titters about Weiner’s antics, triggering a darker (and cringeworthy) confrontation with what America both loves and hates about its politicians. In a private moment, Weiner is asked whether he thinks Abedin loves him because of his loud antics, and he muses, somberly, “No, I think it’s in spite of it.”
The media — and we, the consumers of popular culture — can’t seem to get enough of the endless “weiner” jokes (the film opens with a pertinent Marshall McLuhan epigraph which elicited chuckles from the get-go). His sexual peccadillos are not really the crux of the problem. It is the ever-hungry 24-hour news cycle, which creates a feedback spiral, a chitter-chatter that drowns out any of the public good a crusading politician might bring to the electoral process. What’s lost amid the endless “Weiner Pulls Out” quips is that important issues are at stake. You feel for the few dismayed voters, often people of color, stranded on the outside of his post-scandal news conferences, begging reporters to let Weiner talk about the real issues. But that is not to be. There’s always another prurient detail to be catalogued, another penis joke to be laughed at, another clickbait headline to be written. Here is where the documentary implicates us — entertained to death by Weiner’s crash — with a healthy dose of clips from late-night comedians and Sunday morning news roundtables.
Weiner doesn’t avoid accepting taking the blame for his indiscretions. His bouts of self-flagellations are many, including an impressive mea culpa in front of a disgusted City Island crowd who — in a sign of his still-potent political talents — ends up cheering for him. Weirdly, Weiner comes across as surprisingly sympathetic and self-aware, thoughtful about his own responsibility in all that comes down, most endearingly when he realizes the damage he is doing to his wife. Yet Weiner the narcissist ends up trumping all, including the film itself. By the end of Weiner, we don’t care that admirable liberal causes were ignored — we are fascinated by our anti-hero.
In a late scene, Weiner watches the replay of his meltdown on TV’s MSNBC. Looking at his computer screen, he smirks indulgently, in thrall to his own image, unable to stop watching the unedited footage that didn’t make it on air. On the screen, Lawrence O’Donnell poses a direct question to him, “What is wrong with you?” which Weiner dodges in a display of improvised political survival tinged with desperation. As Weiner stares at the screen, transfixed, Abedin tenses across the room, a look of pure exhaustion on her face. “Sorry, I just can’t,” she says, and walks out of the room.
But we want to keep watching. It’s too entertaining.
Neil Giordano teaches film and creative writing in Newton. His work as an editor, writer, and photographer has appeared in Harper’s, Newsday, Literal Mind, and other publications. Giordano previously was on the original editorial staff of DoubleTake magazine and taught at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.