I presume Anthony Weiner got a lot of stick for his unfortunate surname as a kid, and it’s something of a shame that the former Congressman is still the butt of a lot of infantile jokes being made by adult political commentators (and now professional and amateur film reviewers), though as this documentary makes clear he hasn’t exactly helped his own cause in recent years. For those who are previously unaware of the man’s existence, the married Weiner served New York City’s 9th congressional district for a couple of years before being caught up in a sexting scandal involving another woman in 2011, after which he duly resigned in shame (the joke being he was texting pictures of his…wiener). This entertaining fly-on-the-wall documentary by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg picks up on his story a couple of years later, following Weiner on the campaign trail as he stages a comeback and bids to become the Democrat candidate for Mayor of New York.
Immediately you can see the appeal of the man – he’s passionate about his city and the people who live there – and you can also see the appeal of the story to the filmmakers: here’s a larger-than-life public figure who has been knocked down as a result of his own actions, but he’s getting back in the ring again for another fight, and the public – particularly those in New York’s various minority communities – seem to be warming to him. So it’s quite incredible when another similar sexting story, involving a photo of Weiner’s penis that he sent to a Las Vegas resident named Sydney Leathers, is made public. He’s exposed as a liar, and a serial cheat, therefore his credentials as an electable politician are in tatters. Is this an act of self-sabotage by Weiner’s unconscious mind? Does he have an addiction to sexting? Can he come back from another big hit like this? Is his wife Huma Abedin, a leading aide to Hillary Clinton, able to forgive him despite the fact she stands by his side during a press conference?
Though some of these questions are not answered by this documentary, simply watching Weiner’s car crash of a campaign unfold makes for fascinating viewing. He’s torn apart by the pack of vultures that form the majority of the political commentators on American TV (some familiar satirical faces, some supposedly well-respected talking heads), who can’t resist sticking the boot in every five minutes. However Weiner’s also a terribly aggressive TV guest, and he labours under the impression that he is winning debates in which he clearly looks foolish and is embarassing himself. An ugly, unnecessary confrontation in a Jewish bakery, in which a customer makes a comment about the fact that Weiner’s wife is an Arab (though that’s not the comment that draws Weiner’s ire in the first place), serves only to reinforce the feeling that this is a man who is drawn to conflict and who doesn’t know when to walk away.
As with any public interest story it’s a thrill to be rubbernecking during people’s private moments, and it’s telling that I felt disappointed each time the camera operator (Kriegman, I believe) is ushered out of a room so that Weiner and Abedin can have a private chat. The degree in which you warm to the man, or are able to forgive him, will partly depend on your own thoughts about infidelity (in the form of sexting) and partly on your empathy with Huma, who looks understandably pissed off and gradually withdraws her public support for her husband – literally leaving him holding the baby on election day – following severe and utterly unfair media criticism of her own actions in the wake of the scandal. (The day before I watched this documentary, it was announced that the couple have finally split, following a third sexting scandal; a life in reality TV awaits Anthony, methinks.) Of course as a serial cheat and a liar Weiner comes off looking bad, but then he’s also shown in a sympathetic light by the filmmakers too, exhibiting genuine warmth on occasion when hugging supporters and demonstrating a willingness to make a fool of himself in front of cameras (a scene at the end, in which Weiner dances like a dad on a float during a Caribbean carnival, while giving shout-outs to Bahamians, Jamaicans etc. in the crowd, is gold). The documentary offers some insight into the way in which campaign staff struggle to contain stories or manage scandals, with plenty of behind-the-scenes footage included, and it also serves as an effective critique of the media, with its appetite for salacious stories ensuring that scandals like this are seized upon and, it must be said, completely blown out of proportion. I’m not intending to absolve Weiner of his actions, and it’s no surprise that his marriage has failed as a result, but there are a lot of politicians in the US and elsewhere who have done terrible things, resulting in the losses of thousands of innocent lives, and many of them get a comparitively easy ride.
Directed by: Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg.
Cinematography: Josh Kriegman.
Editing: Eli B. Despres.
Music: Jeff Beal.
Running Time: 96 minutes.