Film review: Weiner documents political unraveling in real time

In Weiner, Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg follow former congressman Anthony Weiner’s quest to overcome a sex scandal, when a second one breaks out. Photo: IFC In Weiner, Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg follow former congressman Anthony Weiner’s quest to overcome a sex scandal, when a second one breaks out. Photo: IFC

Fly-on-the-wall political documentary Weiner begins with a loaded, world-weary sigh from its subject, former congressman Anthony Weiner. “Shit. This is the worst, doing a documentary on my scandal.” Directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg then launch into a montage of extremes: the many puns and potshots that ensued, as well as scenes from the House floor of the committed politician, who fights for what he believes in and stands up for the disenfranchised, who suffer from partisan gamesmanship.

The truth, of course, is somewhere in the middle. Weiner is a deeply flawed man who betrayed the trust of his wife, Huma Abedin, an assistant to Hillary Clinton with the patience of a saint. His scandal had little to do with his political beliefs—he was not, for example, an anti-gay politician found in a public bathroom engaging in the sort of behavior he attempted to outlaw—yet it did exhibit a tremendous betrayal of the public trust and an irritating dismissal of its significance. Weiner follows his 2013 mayoral campaign two years after Weiner resigned from Congress, and examines the life of a man whose desire to serve is matched only by his occasional fits of hubris.

For those who need a refresher, rarely has a political scandal been so perfectly packaged for late-night satirists and punning headline writers than Weiner’s 2011 sexting scandal. After accidentally posting a photo to his Twitter account that was initially meant as a private message—a “dick pic,” as it were, though concealed by underwear—then Congressman Weiner made matters worse by appearing on television and saying that he could not say “with certitude” that the photo was of him. So not only did he humiliate himself by revealing his extramarital sexting habit and penchant for engaging in the worst behavior of clueless dudes on dating sites; not only did he awkwardly repeat the word “certitude” with a blatant lie that even the scummiest philanderer would never attempt; but his name is Weiner. Even if he were the most respected lawmaker in the nation, his reputation would not have survived the perfect storm of this scandal.

While following Weiner’s mayoral campaign, Kriegman and Steinberg are coincidentally present for the outbreak of his second scandal, this one even more preposterous for the alias used by Weiner—Carlos Danger—and the dogged determination of fame- seeking Sydney Leathers to bring him down with the assistance of Howard Stern. Prior to this, Weiner had actually been leading the polls and had changed the conversation back to the issues of his campaign, perhaps signaling the public’s willingness to forgive and move on. But, from this point on, Weiner’s numbers plummeted, and his desperation to talk about anything but his personal life begins to show in his interactions with his wife, the press and passersby on the street.

Many documentarians succeed by being in the right place at the right time, and this is certainly true of Kriegman and Steinberg. Yet they excel journalistically and artistically beyond what would have been necessary for an interesting chronicling of a moment in time. Weiner occasionally calls attention to itself as a documentary in clever ways, intentionally betraying the fly-on-the-wall conceit: showing when Weiner and Abedin wish for the cameras to leave the room (though what they do say on camera is remarkable) and with a shining bit of Weiner’s wit in which he dismisses a question from Kriegman by asking what species of fly can talk.

There is a longstanding truism among political scientists that, despite different views, voters will most often elect the candidate with whom they’d like to get a beer. Weiner is not that candidate—you may not even want to be in the same room as him. Yet Weiner investigates society’s need to morally approve of people whose profession actually has nothing to do with their personal lives. In some ways, our expectation that politicians be the sort of person we’d want to have over for dinner is precisely what has led to the rise of performative morality among lawmakers. Whether you liked or disliked Weiner, forgave or begrudged him, Weiner will not change your mind, but it will inspire you to examine the dehumanizing state of our political culture.

Weiner R, 96 minutes
Violet Crown Cinema

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