Weiner, a riveting new documentary about former congressman Anthony Weiner’s catastrophic 2013 New York City mayoral campaign, hearkens back to a more puritanical era in American politics, way back in the early 2010s, when accidentally tweeting your bulge did more damage than, say, discussing your penis size in a presidential debate.
Online commenters have groaned that the last thing we need in 2016 is an Anthony Weiner documentary. Why feed an attention addict exactly what he wants? Yet Weiner, which won this year’s U.S. Documentary Grand Jury prize at Sundance and is now playing in select theaters, achieves must-see status thanks to the remarkable access that filmmakers Josh Kreigman and Elyse Steinberg were granted to the candidate and his wife, Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin. Like Some Kind of Monster, the captivating but embarrassing 2004 documentary that captured Metallica’s experience in group therapy, Weiner will have you asking, “How in the hell did they get permission to film this?”
Kreigman and Steinberg’s film weaves a taut tale of sex, politics and scandal, with Huma emerging as the most likable figure in the sordid ordeal. Like another notable figure dealing with a philandering husband, Huma experiences her Lemonade moment on the big screen in Weiner.
Kreigman and Steinberg remind us that at one point, Weiner was an effective politician, a fiery orator with a bright future. His promise as leader went limp in 2011 when his sexting scandal broke, and the penis puns were too irresistible for headline writers. (Indeed, Weiner begins with a quote from Marshall McLuhan: “The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers.“) The film picks up in 2013, when Weiner and Huma decide that a successful NYC mayoral campaign would be the best way to clear his disgraced name. Enter Kreigman and Steinberg. Kreigman, Weiner’s former chief of staff, is given intimate access to the candidate and his family, thinking that this documentary will be a redemption tale. But in 2016, we know where this quixotic campaign is heading. In hindsight, it’s like watching a 12-car pileup in slow motion. Weiner starts the race with a lead in the polls, but then his second sexting scandal breaks. His alter ego, Carlos Danger, is exposed, and he again falls from prodigal son to national punchline faster than a dying meteor.
While Weiner’s flawed, stubborn and combative character is the focal point of the documentary, it’s Huma who quietly commands the screen. She has been the invisible hand guiding Hillary’s march to the White House, but in Weiner she appears as less of a powerful D.C. consigliere and more of a strong woman suffering a moronic husband. In one of many cringe-inducing scenes (you’ll wince more during Weiner than an entire season of Curb Your Enthusiasm), Weiner gleefully watches himself feud with Lawrence O’Donnell in an online clip, and wants Huma to watch with him. She refuses, struggling to understand why her husband takes so much pleasure watching himself look like a buffoon on national television.
Huma doesn’t speak often in Weiner–she speaks with her eyes, like a silent-film star, either rolling them or shooting daggers at her husband. More often her eyes convey exhaustion and hurt. But when she does speak in the film, it’s sharp and to the point. In one scene, Weiner’s beleaguered press secretary, Barbara Morgan, is in tears. But before Morgan leaves Weiner’s apartment to face the press, Huma instructs her, “Just a quick optics thing: You will look happy.” Later in the film, the documentarians follow Huma around her kitchen. She’s hesitant to speak, but when she does, she says through a false smile, “It’s like I’m living in a nightmare.”
Even though they’re on opposite sides of the aisle, Weiner reveals the former congressman to be somewhat of a proto Trump. He’s a brash, sex-starved, Twitter addicted-narcissist. In a car ride, as his campaign and personal life are in a total free fall, Weiner gleefully reads the following excerpt from the New Yorker:
“The saga of the transgressions of Anthony D. Weiner—former youngest-ever member of the City Council, former seven-term congressman from Brooklyn and Queens, preening self-promoter who never met a camera (television or smartphone) he didn’t glom on to…”
He delights in reading about himself, even when the copy is scathing. One can imagine Trump at this moment, riding in a town car, smirkng as he reads aloud the latest "lame hit piece.”
Weiner succeeds where other political docs stumble simply due to its gasp-inducing access. And the film’s grand finale, Weiner attempts to avoid Sydney Leathers, one of his sexting partners, who wants to confront him at his concession speech. It’s a scene worthy of a Preston Sturges screwball comedy.
At the Los Angeles screening I attended, there was a brief Q&A with the filmmakers. A viewer in the audience asked, “Was there something elusive that you wanted to capture on film that you couldn’t get?” Eli Despres, the film’s editor who whittled 400 hours of footage into the 96-minute documentary, responded, “What else could you possibly want to have seen?”