“Same Old Schlong & Dance,” “Weiner’s Second Coming,” “Weiner Pull Out,” “Weiner’s Rise & Fall,” “Tip of the Weiner,” “Weiner Exposed,” “Weiner: I’ll Stick It Out.” These are examples of some of the tasteful headlines that appeared in that bastion of fine journalism, the New York Post, over the several years in which former U.S. Representative from New York Anthony Weiner was embroiled in multiple scandals involving lewd and explicit photos and text messages to various women. The justifiable uproar that followed the original scandal eventually led to him resigning from Congress in June 2011, but only two years later, he was a front-running candidate for Mayor of New York City before a new round of revelations came to light, probably best remembered due to his chosen online alias “Carlos Danger.”
In their extraordinarily candid documentary Weiner, directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg do a sometimes shockingly thorough job of covering the Weiner mayoral campaign, giving the viewer the necessary backstory to make the second wave of sexting seem all the more shocking—especially since many of the texts were sent after he resigned from Congress. Although he never cops to it, Weiner clearly has some variety of sex addiction that only seemed to escalate once he got caught. But before he was dethroned as one of the Democratic Party’s shining stars, he was a Congressman who passionately fought for keeping health benefits for 9/11 rescue workers when Republicans were on the verge of pulling the plug on them. And during his run for mayor, it was clear that many of his ideas for New York City were good ones that many voters supported.
To add an ironic twist to Weiner’s story, in 2010 he married Huma Abedin, a long-time aide to Hillary Clinton, who served as her Deputy Chief of Staff at the State Department. Some of the film’s most palpably uncomfortable moments come between the husband and wife as they attempt to figure out what campaign events she feels comfortable attending by his side. It’s clear that after the first scandal, they went through intensive marriage counseling, even contemplating separation, but made it through together. After the second set of revelations, her mood alters dramatically, as you might expect, and the camera captures every sideways glance and If-Looks-Could-Kill glare. Even in their happier moments, Abedin is clearly a reluctant participant in this documentary.
For most of the shoot, the filmmakers stay silent as they attempt to take a fly-on-the-wall approach to the documentary, but there are some moments where they break their silence with both Weiner and Abedin because to not comment or question the current state of the campaign or marriage would be almost unforgivable. The access granted by Weiner is astonishing at times. He invited the crew into his life, thinking they’d be documenting one of the greatest comeback stories in politics, only to have a new round of texts and photos leak, followed in kind by more outrage and jokes.
Weiner is a fascinating view of the modern political landscape, which feels more like a battleground than a place for ideas. Weiner rarely hid from the media; he put himself in front of reporters every chance he could, hoping just one of them would want to talk about the issues, and he was consistently disappointed. Often gracious and patient, but occasionally passionate and frustrated, Anthony Weiner was a victim of his own desires, certainly, but the film also shines a light on the unbridled glee with which the press tore him and his family down. It’s a rather disgusting portrait of both sides of the camera.
The most remarkable element to Weiner is that even if the second scandal hadn’t broken, the doc would have still been a gripping examination of a cutthroat campaign. The film reveals Weiner to be the perfect politician in many ways. He possessed a fiery persona that flared up right on cue during speeches and debates; his ideas about how to improve the city were so beloved by citizens that they often booed his opponents if they brought up the original scandal; and voters loved his wife to such a degree that many would have preferred it if she’d run for office, which made her the perfect target after the scandal, with such sensitive headlines as “What’s Wrong With You?” (again, courtesy of the NY Post) running next to her photo after the second scandal broke, and she continued to stick with her husband.
Weiner is not designed to change your mind about Anthony Weiner. The odds are fairly strong that your opinion of him (assuming you have any), his poor choices, and his policies will remain largely unchanged at the end of this work. Instead, the film attempts to give more of a complete picture of a news story that largely played out as a series of punchlines in the press, on the talk shows and around the online water cooler. Some in the film question why Bill Clinton—who officiated at Weiner’s wedding—was forgiven for his indiscretions, doing far worse than Weiner (remember, Weiner had no inappropriate physical contact with anyone). The unsatisfying answer given by one person is, “Clinton is different.”
Based on a sit-down interview done by the filmmakers with Weiner months after his lost mayoral race, it becomes clear that part of the reason he agreed to allow cameras to follow him was to put a certain part of his life behind him. He certainly got more than he bargained for, but because of that, Weiner is one of the most unbelievable and sometimes grotesque (for many reasons that don’t have to do with cybersex) political profiles in recent memory. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.