The first time I saw the documentary Weiner, at Missouri’s True/False Festival this past March, Donald Trump was boasting about the size of his cock during a presidential debate. Given the recent direction of our electoral politics, you might think that a film about former New York representative Anthony Weiner — he of the scandalous sexts, dick pics, and disgraced congressional career — would seem dated and quaint, a transmission from a time when talking about your penis and tweeting dumb things led to political ignominy, not a national ticket. Instead, the film feels very much of the moment, because it’s not really about politics at all. Weiner would be a fascinating figure in any industry — compelling and tragic, boisterous and self-loathing. Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman’s documentary takes place over the course of the former congressman’s doomed 2013 run for mayor of New York, capturing him in all his discomfiting complexity and flamboyance.
The filmmakers had probably set out hoping to portray Weiner’s mayoral run as a tale of political redemption; Kriegman is a former chief of staff for the congressman, and in its initial days the campaign looked promising. Although it had been less than two years since Weiner resigned his House seat, he led in early polls, and in the film his fresh-faced, enthusiastic campaign staff look happy and dedicated. You may even catch yourself thinking that Weiner might be well suited to the mayor’s office. There his aggressive style might have proved more productive than in the House of Representatives, where nothing can ever get done.
But Weiner’s campaign couldn’t survive the discovery that he had done further sexting after resigning his seat — all of it, he claimed, during a dark period immediately following the original scandal when he and his wife, Huma Abedin, were considering a separation. Kriegman and Steinberg capture the explosive impact these new revelations have on the race: the irate and bewildered response of his staffers; the tidal wave of media indignation and snark.
They also capture the increasingly painful silences between Weiner and Abedin. A key adviser to soon-to-be presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, the latter was facing a particularly difficult personal and political task: stand by her man while being careful about her growing public profile lest it all blow back on her boss. We see her asking for books and briefings on what she should say; she’s not a natural speaker the way her husband is, and even in private, she appears to let silent glares of disapproval and disappointment do the talking for her, while he seems incapable of shutting up. It’s heartbreaking watching her try not to get sucked into Weiner’s vortex of promise and humiliation, but she is always its first and most prominent victim.
Weiner is about as entertaining as a film about someone destroying a life and career can be. You can’t turn away from the car wreck, and Weiner himself can’t stop commenting on it. It’s great television when he gets into a shouting match on Lawrence O’Donnell’s MSNBC show, but the sight of Weiner in the emptiness of a remote studio in New York, seemingly yelling into thin air, strikes a poignant note as well. Later, Weiner himself watches the appearance with a peculiar mixture of shame and pride. He even shows it to Abedin, and the two-shot of them staring at the laptop, his grin contrasting with her look of paralyzed horror, speaks volumes about their relationship. He knows it, too. After she leaves, he points to the screen. “Whatever the opposite of that is, is what Huma is,” he says, as that grin slides ever so slightly toward a grimace.
“I did the things,” Weiner says contritely in one interview. “But I did some other things, too.” Once upon a time, he probably would have uttered those words with pride — as if to say, Look at all the good I did that was briefly derailed by a momentary lapse of judgment. But by the end his tone is exhausted, reflective. The “other things” — for example, his bellowing attacks on Republicans for their scuttling of legislation to help 9-11 first responders — have receded from the public consciousness. These are the words of a defeated man, but there’s a note of bemusement in his voice, too. The most fascinating thing about Weiner is that even as you cringe and giggle at the spectacle of the candidate’s implosion, you can’t help but feel that he might be in the seat next to you — gawking along at his own downfall.
Directed by Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman
Opens May 20, IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas