Review: Weiner (2016)

Weiner is a tragicomic portrait of ambition, narcissism, and second chances

By Zeke Trautenberg

Behind the political sheen, who is Anthony Weiner? What makes him tick? Is Weiner, a seven-term former Congressman and failed candidate for mayor of New York City, a flawed hero or an impulsive clown? And why did he let Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg film it all?

These questions are at the center Kriegman and Steinberg’s documentary about the ambitious New York politician whose comeback was derailed mid-campaign by a sexting scandal. Weiner sent dozens of sexually explicit images and messages to numerous women over the course of several years. His personal indiscretions first captured headlines in 2011. The ensuing furor prompted Weiner to resign from Congress. More images resurfaced in 2013 during his campaign for mayor. Weiner, who was leading in the polls, was undone by the hydra-like scandal. He finished his campaign with a whimper, receiving only five percent of the vote.

With his telenovela-ready nom de plume, Carlos Danger, Weiner was a character ready made for a media and political landscape that thrives on the cults of celebrity, scandal, and short attention spans. In their documentary, Kriegaman and Steinberg embrace the complexities of Weiner the political animal during the thirteen-weeks in the lead up to the vote. The documentary depicts a multifaceted character: Weiner is at once a wiry rubber band of narcissitic compulsion, a firebrand populist, a thoughtful father, and one-half of a Democratic-power couple—Weiner’s wife Huma Abedin is Hillary Clinton’s long-time aide and confidant.

The film opens with a video clip that establishes Weiner’s political personality. We see Weiner, on floor of the House of Representatives, indignantly calling out Republicans for thwarting passage of a bill providing support for 9/11 emergency responders. The scene ends with a full-throated mic smash; a moment of choreographed defiance and outrage that is the most effective tool in Weiner’s substantial political repertoire. More clips show political pundits celebrating Weiner’s excoriating take down of Republicans. Weiner may not be a folk hero, but he is a compelling political actor and a jolt of energy to a Congress defined by inaction.

In the film, we see Weiner’s campaign unfold, rising and falling like a bulging bell curve. Armed with hand held cameras, the directors doggedly follow Weiner as he basks in media scrums; jumps, shouts, and dances his way through a dizzying variety of parades; recites Rodney Dangerfield jokes in the back seat of his car to his beleaguered communications director; engages in an on-air mud slinging match with host Lawrence O’Donnell (“I think there is something wrong with you,” O’Donnell declares); speaks with a campaign advisor about pulling off a Bulworth in the last weeks of his campaign; and withstands the icy glare of his exasperated spouse. Like The War Room (1993), a landmark political documentary of politics in the late-twentieth-century, Weiner engages with its subject up close; blurry genitalia, pinapples, and all.

What makes Weiner a fascinating character is not his vapid desire for recognition—a tendency he shares with Presidential candidate and one-note hype man Donald Trump—; but rather his determination to question the moral values of those who would judge him, or even worse, write him off as a mere sideshow. Indeed, the question of whether Weiner did anything wrong lingers with the viewer after the film. Weiner argues that his only definitive transgression was to lie his constituents and to have a funny name. He contends that the Greek chorus of the press merely “played their part” in dwelling on his scandals, and were captivated by them because “they don’t do nuance.” However, Weiner’s part in his own undoing is not trivial: he willingly opens up his private life and exposes his family to the scrutiny of Kriegman and Steinberg’s camera and those of the media. Ironically, he aims to shape a self-aggrandizing narrative of his political comeback, without foreseeing how quickly things would mutate out of his control.

In addition to the dramatic story the documentary tells, it is shaped by the self-awareness of its protagonist. At the end of the film, Weiner observes that even though the documentary that bears his name will be swallowed by the “vortex” of his scandals, he hopes that it will provide the opportunity for history to revisit him. “I wanted to be viewed as the full person that I was,” Weiner wistfully reflects. Anchored to this tragicomic figure, the film bobs up and down like a buoy amid a turbulent sea, its uneasy movements telegraphing our troubled times.

Directors: Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg

Running Time: 96 minutes

Country: USA

Photos: Edgeline Films/IFC