Film Review: WeinerHugely entertaining doc about ex-U.S. congressman Anthony Weiner’s New York mayoral run in 2013 despite a preceding sexting scandal and another that drops mid-campaign works as an exposé of both the will to power and a tragic professional self-immolation.
Access to a subject is everything in a doc, and filmmakers Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg got it in spades with Weiner. (Kriegman and Anthony Weiner had met years back when the filmmaker, before his career switch, worked for him on an earlier political campaign.) But the access here, given what was happening to Weiner and how thorough it is, is stunning. The filmmakers’ up-close and maybe too personal parameters allow them to deliver a deliciously revealing reality-show-like look at disgraced New York politician Weiner as he fell precipitously in his second bid to be the Democratic New York mayoral candidate due to his second sexting scandal.
Not all sensationalistic, this close-up view of a mayoral campaign reveals some mundane aspects—the “kiss the babies” kind of desperation and phony ingratiation required—but, in Weiner’s story, it’s the unexpected sideshows that accompany what was supposed to be a road to victory that startle.
The doc briefly provides some background. Nearly two decades earlier, Weiner won a general election that made him the youngest councilman at that time in New York City history. In 2005, he ran unsuccessfully for New York City mayor but impressed with his strong second-place showing in the Democratic primary. Soon after, he was again in business as an elected official in Congress.
In 2010, Weiner married Huma Abedin, longtime aide to Hillary Clinton. Bill Clinton officiated at their wedding. Their first child was born in 2011. But in May of that year, Weiner sent a sexually explicit photograph of himself to a female Twitter follower via his public account. He initially denied posting the image—a breach of trust with both the public and his wife that would come back to haunt him.
When Weiner was subsequently forced to admit that he had “exchanged messages and photos of an explicit nature with about six women over the last three years,” the disclosure led to his resignation from Congress. He was down but hardly out of politics. In May 2013, he believed that his progressive ideas for “this great city” and its hurting middle class would obliterate the scandal’s damage (he was pro-housing, against high property taxes, etc.). Thus began another bid for New York City mayor, which is where Weiner begins.
In a cloud of optimism, the aspiring mayor finds office space, builds a campaign team and with Abedin and others raises money. But when news of a second sexting scandal hits, it all goes slowly downhill and Weiner will have to yell over and over to journalists eager for dirt to stay “on topic” with their questions. With an unblinking eye on the prize, he pushes forward as a preternaturally focused motor-mouth, like a wound-up toy propelled by an Energizer battery of nerve, drive, narcissism and denial. But a blind one lacking common sense.
Abedin grows more and more disheartened, especially as Weiner’s approval numbers go south. Her disappointment with the mess that grows messier becomes more and more evident.
Sleazy real-life characters won’t hurt any doc. Here, there’s the tawdry Sydney Leathers, a buxom Vegas card dealer who was one of Weiner’s sexting friends and who comes to New York determined to confront him.
Also interesting is the toll Weiner’s ordeal takes on his young staffers, especially his communications director Barbara Marshall and another who is a holdout to the bitter end and arranges to sneak Weiner past Ms. Leathers as she tries to crash the gathering where he makes his concession speech. This episode, which Weiner and his assistant dub their “Pineapple” operation, is the film’s “action” scene.
Much time is also given over to footage of the news media’s bitter commentary about the affair and the biting comedy of a number of talk-show hosts and comedians whose Weiner/sexting jokes are both funny and sad. Low drama comes by way of some extraordinary meltdowns that have Weiner savaging hecklers or giving the finger through a car window to the press that hounds him.
While Weiner has a pretty clean story arc in its rise-and-fall dynamic of the once-promising political animal, a number of mysteries pop up along the way that enrich this trip into politics, a predatory media and a disturbed psyche. These include Weiner’s obsessive love of the camera (any camera) and attention, almost any kind of attention.
Yes, he is revealed as a gifted speaker, quick thinker and champion of liberal causes (he’s a big flag waver/handshaker at parades for Latinos, gays, you name it). But where did so much narcissism come from? And as the lurid details pile up, why does Abedin stand by her man? Intercut are pieces from a post-campaign interview that Weiner gave the filmmakers, but little here illuminates the fog.
One of the doc’s bigger mysteries is why in the world he agreed to this documentary in the first place (surely the first sexting episode would play front and center) and give so much access to the filmmakers by also accommodating them so completely.
The filmmakers, claiming an adherence to the vérité style, never betray their point of view regarding Weiner the man. But no viewer will leave the film without an opinion.
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