Sometimes, a story you think will be interesting takes a turn, and becomes utterly fascinating. That’s definitely the case for the makers of Weiner, who signed up to create a documentary about former New York Representative Anthony Weiner’s planned political comeback, as he ran for mayor of New York City. What starts off as a comeback story turns into something far stranger and more fascinating, as the former political dynamo implodes in spectacular fashion.
By 2011, Anthony Weiner had developed a reputation as a boisterous presence in the House of Representatives, known for his passion and his tendency to argue. Then Weiner tweeted a picture of his…well, appropriately-named appendage, and his promising Congressional career ended with his resignation. Cut to 2013, when Weiner risked ridicule as he began to run for mayor in NYC. After a promising start, and a leading rise in the polls, more sexts came out. With the new round of sexts, Weiner’s campaign went limp.
For anyone with a sense of political history that goes past more current issues regarding male appendages, like those involving hand size, the basic rise and fall of this story should be familiar. Indeed, much of Weiner’s rise and fall (both times) played out over news channels. Weiner doesn’t try to make its central character into a misunderstood hero. Instead, it shows just how chaotic the world of politics can be, the massive egos of politicians, and how the media’s focus on superficial topics can detract from more substantive issues.
Most of this is a byproduct of the filming process, not the intended result. Documentarians Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg have their level of access in part due to Kriegman’s connections to Weiner as a former staffer. The first half of the film follows the planned formula for the film: following Weiner around as he mounts a comeback. The initial sexting controversy is handled in relatively quick fashion, and Weiner’s shown wooing the voting public back to him – with surprising success. They capture everything from meet-and-greets to private phone calls and moments with Weiner and his wife, Huma Abedin. It’s a surprisingly personal look at Weiner’s campaigning.
And then, everything goes to hell. And the filmmakers keep the cameras rolling, capturing both Weiner’s and Abedin’s public humiliation over the new round of sexting scandals. While Abedin, unlike Weiner, never sits down for an interview, the camera manages to capture the pained expressions on her face as the scandal widens.
The level at which the filmmakers find themselves embedded becomes more obvious during the second half of the film, as the film shifts between their cameras and those belonging to other projects. A contentious interview with Lawrence O’Donnell becomes more desperate when the televised version cuts to and from the filmmakers’ shot of Weiner, sitting alone in a studio, seeming even more crazy without the benefit of O’Donnell’s voice. A late-campaign political ad that seems polished in its final product looks like anything but that with the number of restarts and arguments that come into play.
And then there’s the election night fallout. It’s obvious that Weiner will lose, but the stakes are raised when Weiner’s sexting partner, porn star Sydney Leathers, decides to show up outside of the location where Weiner will give his concession speech to confront both Weiner and Abedin. The film cuts between Leathers and Weiner, who is actively trying to avoid the confrontation more for Abedin’s sake than his own at this point.
So, yes. The film doesn’t make Weiner into a saint. But it also doesn’t place blame on Weiner outside of his indiscretions. There are legitimate points raised throughout the film about Weiner’s judgment, but the film calls out the media attention that chose to focus almost exclusively on the sexting and Weiner’s decision to stay in the race rather than on the substantive issues he raised. It’s because Weiner’s takes on the issues facing New Yorkers, nuanced as they are, don’t sell nearly as well as dick pics. What a system.