“Why did you let me film this?”
This simple question, posed at the end of Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s Weiner, is as baffling to the movie’s subject as it is to everyone else. Anthony Weiner gave a documentary crew incredible behind-the-scenes access to his 2013 New York mayoral campaign while his political career crumbled and his personal life turned to a shambles. By that point, Weiner had surely already signed away permission, of course, but nothing was stopping him from locking out the crew when things got ugly.
Still, he campaigned on (and the crew filmed on), refusing to acknowledge that he sunk himself by making the exact same mistake that sunk his career years earlier—maybe because he’s an egotist and couldn’t bear being out of the spotlight, or maybe because he’s an idealist, believing that people would see past his online indiscretions and vote based on his ideas. Or maybe he’s nothing more than a self-destructive glutton for punishment.
Whatever the truth, the public will remember Weiner for his scandals, which fell from the sky like a host of divine gifts to late-night comedy. (The “Carlos Danger” theme song from John Oliver’s stint guest-hosting The Daily Show ought to come to mind.) But the movie reminds us that Weiner first hit the political scene as an outspoken firebrand, prone to passion and theatrical bluster, a man who caught people’s attention and inspired supporters to elect him to seven terms in congress. A rapid-fire montage recalls his quick rise, only to see his ambitions cut short by his first scandal. He publicly posted what was meant to be a private message containing a picture of his penis through his underwear, and then tried to claim his account was hacked instead of owning up to it. This ultimately led to his resignation.
As Weiner begins, the man has put the past behind him, reformed his ways and regained the enthusiasm of New York City. Not only are people willing to forgive him, they’re excited about him: The filmmakers contrast a raucous Weiner parade appearance with a sparsely accompanied Bill de Blasio one, showing Weiner as a rockstar bound for glory against an opponent who doesn’t know how to fire-up a crowd (but who ultimately won the election).
Such fervent support makes all the more tragic the fallout Weiner must endure when he gets busted for sexting after he’d supposedly put it all behind him. This time, it isn’t just the inappropriate photos, but his ridiculous porn-star-worthy alias that catch the media’s attention. Though Weiner tries to spin it as old news, since it happened the previous year, his facts don’t match his previously stated timeline. Sure, sending people you’ve never met pictures of your junk isn’t the worst thing you can do in the grand scheme of things, but it’s easy for the media to latch onto, and since Weiner wasn’t truthful about when or if he had stopped doing such things, his whole character is called into question.
Directors Kriegman and Steinberg so superbly convey the sweeping excitement Weiner could generate that it makes things all the more depressing when he can’t even get five percent of the vote. The movie shifts from energetic editing, showing people’s love for the candidate, to a claustrophobic, drawn-out humiliation. Where once people cheered him in the street, now they heckle him so he knows full well what a scumbag he is.
The campaign veers toward crazier-than-fiction madness as Election Day nears. One can’t help but think of Armando Iannucci satires like Veep and The Thick of It while watching the campaign run futile attempts at damage control even after the election is clearly lost. When Weiner’s sexting partner plans to ambush him on election night, things get downright zany, especially as one aid keeps offering to explain the plan he came up with, but no one wants to hear it. With the election lost, the campaign seems to be working more to save Weiner’s marriage than anything else.
Weiner is part of a political celebrity couple. His wife, Huma Abedin, has long been one of Hillary Clinton’s top aides, and served as her deputy secretary of state. Her loyalty toward Weiner is part of what made his political comeback possible, and also what makes his betrayal so painful. Abedin recognizes when the campaign is over, while Weiner persists in pushing her to make public appearances to somehow clear his image. It’s easy to feel a little dirty watching Abedin try to stay neutral on camera when she is clearly annoyed, and her husband doesn’t make it any easier with his bitter prodding. You can’t blame the documentarians for rolling during such juicy conflict, but it definitely skirts the line between voyeurism and insight. Then again, that very line defines Weiner’s career.
If the filmmakers had an agenda besides studying Weiner’s character, they did a great job of hiding it. Weiner shows many facets of his personality: He can be charming and funny, but he can also be a petulant, entitled jerk. The veneer wears off as the stress mounts, making things increasingly uncomfortable—it’s excruciating to watch this man try to salvage respect from certain humiliation, but it makes for a devilishly intimate look into the madness of modern politics.
No matter what Weiner accomplishes in his future as a lobbyist, pundit or activist, he will always be the guy with the funny name who did the pervy stuff online. And yet he can’t quite bring himself to do the sensible thing and retreat out of public view. Why did he let them film him? Maybe he just couldn’t think of anything better.
Directors: Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg
Featuring: Anthony Weiner, Huma Abedin
Release Date: May 20, 2016