Weiner is a documentary about failure—unremitting, unrelenting, personal, professional, and moral failure. Failure of the sort you rarely get to see in real time because people prone to fail this spectacularly don’t let filmmakers like Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg get so intimately close. Fortunately for all of us, disgraced congressman Anthony Weiner is quite abnormal, much to the chagrin of his humiliated wife and Hillary Clinton confidante Huma Abedin.
Weiner is, simply put, one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen.
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Political junkies remember the fall of the house of Weiner in 2011. Following the revelation that he had traded naughty selfies with a bevy of strangers on social media, Weiner was forced to resign from the House and went into a brief exile. It was the perfect story for our outrage-of-the-day era: politics, technology, conservative media (Andrew Breitbart crashing the press conference), sex, power. The whole episode was out of a Christopher Buckley novel.
After his fall from grace—which we see in a brief montage at the beginning of Weiner—the sexting congressman immediately began plotting his comeback. Not happy staying at home with his powerbroker wife and their young child, Anthony Weiner decided to run for mayor in 2013. Fatefully, he also decided to give a former staffer and aspiring filmmaker intimate access to the campaign and the candidate’s home life.
And, for a while, allowing this level of access seemed like a wise decision. The first act of Weiner plays out like a normal redemption narrative: shamed and humbled, the congressman opens an office, amasses a staff, and proves that he’s more than the sum of his, um, parts, connecting with voters and somehow surging to the top of the polls.
Then it all comes crashing down.
Another scandal erupts when one of Weiner’s harlots reveals that she received naughty photos from the politician after he had publicly admitted to the original indiscretions and said he’d stop. The campaign goes into a tailspin: Weiner’s polls drop, campaign volunteers look shell-shocked, his campaign manager bails, and the campaign trail becomes a minefield.
The implosion is amazing and entertaining to watch. Just as interesting to observe, though, is the relationship between Huma and Anthony. At first she takes a bullet for the campaign, appearing at a presser where she stands by her man. It’s a humiliating and degrading experience—talking heads describe it as spousal abuse on the cable networks—and one Huma does not seem keen to repeat. Her disgust with Weiner becomes more apparent, her anger at having been put in the position of Good Wife. By the end of the film, after a chat with/command from another Clinton confidante, she’s refusing to do ads or otherwise support him publicly.
"It’s like living a nightmare," Huma says to the camera in one of her more unguarded moments. You don’t doubt her. Huma’s a behind-the-scenes sort of person, one who seems relatively uncomfortable in front of the camera. In this, she is the exact opposite of her husband, who seems to have a terrible compulsion to be in the spotlight. One gets the sense that he’s a masochist from the apparent joy he takes in watching himself be humiliated on national TV, obsessively watching video clips of his savaging at the hands of cable news. Or maybe just a narcissist. It takes some sort of mental maladjustment to not pull the plug half way through, to subject yourself and your family to this kind of scrutiny.
Kriegman and Steinberg’s footage is impressive, but editor Eli B. Despres cuts Weiner in a way that makes it feel truly remarkable. The scene in which the former congressman is lectured live on the air by Lawrence O’Donnell is particularly impressive; we cut between the aired interview and footage of Weiner, by himself, on a stage, staring into a camera and screaming responses. The moment perfectly captures the absurdity of the Weiner campaign: Isolated and alone, he’s still under fire and projecting his delusions to hundreds of thousands of people.