One thing is crystal clear from watching Weiner, a fly-on-the-wall documentary filmed over the course of Anthony Weiner’s ill-fated 2013 run for Mayor of New York: we should probably have little to no sympathy for the plight of the disgraced former Congressman: he did the things, after all; and in doing them, became a national punchline to a joke that by the end, nobody particularly wanted to hear.
In Weiner, a film as much concerned with the aftershocks of overnight success and failure as its main character, Anthony Weiner’s repeated transgressions are highlighted by his hubristic tendency towards exhibitionist behaviour, compounded by a serious smartphone addiction, and a selective ability to tell the whole truth. Entertaining in the most cringeworthy and sad way possible, Weiner charts the former politician’s rapid fall from grace.
Weiner;Dir.: Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg; USA 2017, 96 minutes. Our Rating: ★★★★/5
At one point, Congressman Anthony Weiner seemed to have the world at his feet; his reputation for sticking up for the middle-class and those in need apparently preceded him; on social media, his fiery rants for social justice and change in Congress gained him cult status and viral fame, while critics and talking heads lauded his refreshingly confrontational style; his wife Huma Abedin was a close of advisor of Hillary Clinton, even described as a second daughter to the woman who went on to win the popular vote in the 2017 US Election.
But, in June of 2011, a shocking scandal broke – the first in a series of #Weinergates – as the Congressman inadvertently sent a lewd picture of himself to his Twitter account. At first denying any potential wrongdoing, he soon attempts to own up, but essentially exacerbates the situation with the often relied-upon tools of parsed language and deflection. But, it appears, the damage is done. Social media reactions are in – his burgeoning popularity is apparently on the wane – and it’s the lead story across every major newspaper. After trying to brush the scandal aside and move on, Weiner quits his position in Congress following a decisive intervention by Barack Obama.
Weiner charts a relatively short period of time during Anthony Weiner’s run for Mayor of New York City in 2013, after the couple spent two years mostly out of the public eye, in a “defensive crouch”, as Weiner himself describes it. We find the disgraced firebrand back in his political element: drawing attention to himself and Mayoral campaign at every possible opportunity, at rallies, speeches, and concerts, online and in person; wherever a camera is present, it seems, quick-witted self-promoter Weiner doesn’t miss a trick; in Weiner we see him presented, for better and worse, as both by-product and casualty of the social media boom.
In Weiner, a perfect storm of sensational revelations (and comically poor decision-making by Weiner in its midst) seems to fall right into the lap of the film-makers Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman, who share interviewing duties. During the filming of the documentary, yet more scandal is heaped upon Weiner through a series of women coming forward to say that they’d engaged in explicit conversations, sharing photos and sexting with the candidate since the cloud of the original scandal had passed over. This makes for fascinating but cringeworthy viewing.
In one revealing scene shot at a decisive point in the campaign, we see Barbara Morgan, communications director, Amit Bagga, his senior advisor, and Camille Joseph – campaign manager – sat around a coffee table, all airing their grievances. Huma, an increasingly peripheral figure after these new revelations come to light – and who can blame her? – still has to point her husband in the right direction to avoid further internal conflict.
Huma – as much a part of the spotlight as Anthony in their high-profile relationship – refuses to be dragged down with him, and tries to manage the situation, sensing her own reputation diminishing exponentially with every daft press conference and badly handled photo op gone awry.
Weiner demonstrates time after time that without Huma’s frankly heroic attempts to micro-manage the man child that is Anthony Weiner, he probably couldn’t dress himself in the morning; in this context, the revelation of his further betrayals seems even more unfathomable. Whenever she’s not in the picture, Weiner seems unable to help himself, despite having every opportunity to do just that. Reeling headfirst into one car crash interview or press conference after another, the wheels come off for good. Weiner’s grand final act simply has to be seen to be believed.
Weiner excels when capturing its subject in the presence of others. When alone, it’s hard to shake the feeling that he wants you to see it his way, not always by what he says, but by what he thinks you ought to be seeing and hearing. Thanks to intimate close-up shots and sensitive editing, we see the good and the bad, whether it’s favourable or not. Anthony Weiner is presented not as a victim or a martyr – despite his best efforts to sway our sympathies with puppy-dog eyes and confused, lonely glances.
In Weiner, our documentarians stick to their guns; through their careful questioning – by knowing when to sit outside the circus and when to buy a ticket – Anthony Weiner reveals himself. He’s not a victim, but a perpetrator; a by-product of moral ambiguity, a now-sidelined player in a hyper-partisanal political landscape with 24/7 news coverage to boot, where optics are everything, and failure begins with the touch of a single button.
In Weiner, we may not get to see the whole of Anthony Weiner – perhaps one picture sent mid-June in 2011 was plenty, after all – but we see enough. We see him as someone whose burgeoning masculinity becomes toxic for all those around him, including – most sadly – his own wife and child. We see him as a sinking ship of self-regard. We see him as a cheat. We see him as a liar. Sooner or later, so does everyone else.