Friday, August 19, 2016

Movie Review: Weiner

Directed by: Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg.
Weiner is a documentary that you want watch through your fingers – you want to flinch and look away at the painful awkwardness on screen, but you simply cannot. It’s the type of documentary that you see and wonder why the subjects would have ever agreed to let the film get made at all. I mean, Anthony Weiner had to see this coming, right? After everything he went through in 2011, when the original sexting scandal broke – how he went from the future of the Democratic Party into a late night TV punch line, overnight, eventually resigning in disgrace. When, two years later, he decided to try and restart his political career, running for Mayor of New York, and knowing full well that there were more, and more explicit, texts and message out there, he had to have known that the whole thing might erupt again and make him look bad, right? Why the hell would he not only want to risk that by running for office again, and why the hell would he agree to have a documentary crew follow him around as he does? Near the end of the film, after everything has turned to shit, one of the directors ask Weiner this very question. Tellingly, Weiner doesn’t reply.
Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg’s Weiner will likely go down as one of the best political documentaries of recent years – and it fully deserves to. It gives us an inside look at politics in the way we normally never get to see – because most politicians are too guarded and cautious to allow that sort of look. Anthony Weiner is neither of those things, which is perhaps why he did let them film it – he figured he weathered the storm, and it was over. He was wrong. The opening scenes of the movie recap Weiner’s career in Congress – where he was fiery and passionate and articulate, and refused to give into what he saw as the bullying tactics of the Republicans. It then, briefly, recaps how that all came crashing down – when he accidentally tweeted a picture of his penis, yes, inside underwear but we could all see the outline, to everyone in his feed, instead of a private message. What followed was Weiner trying to lie his way out of the scandal, until he no longer could, and resigned. The rest of the film takes place in 2013, when Weiner decides to run for Mayor of New York.
His campaign gets off to a rocky start – he has to field a lot of questions about his personal life, his sexting, and everything else. But he seems to weather it – he seems like a genuinely smart, passionate and articulate person – and the polls show that he could actually win this thing. People seem willing to forgive and forget, and move on. And then, the other shoe drops. More messages, more explicit pictures, and one of the women he sexted with – Sydney Leathers – who will seemingly do anything for her 15 minutes of fame, who continues to flog the story. It is irresistible to late night comedians – sex scandals are inherently amusing, especially ones with the type of over baked sexual texts Weiner was sending, and because, of course, when he went on those sites he used an assumed name – Carlos Danger. How could anyone not make fun of him (the fact that his last name was Weiner is, of course, also part of it)?
At this point, the writing seems to be on the wall. Weiner is going to lose. He drops 10 points in a week – some of his advisers, in a painful phone call, tell him to drop out – he has no path to victory. His relationship with the media becomes overtly combative. But damn it all, Weiner presses on – he will not be bowed or broken, even when he has no chance.
All of this would be more than enough for a documentary – and a very good one. What I think gives the film another layer though is the portrait it paints of Weiner’s marriage – to Huma Abedin, a long time Hilary Clinton staffer, who has risen over the years to becomes one of her most trusted advisers (many rumors think Abedin will be Clinton’s Chief of Staff once he humiliates Trump in November). Weiner loves the camera, but Abedin cannot stand it. She speaks at some events, even at the Press Conference when the scandal erupts again, but she would much rather be neither seen nor heard on the campaign trail. Their marriage has obviously been through a lot – they explicitly mention that the texts that cause the second scandal were during a time they thought of separately. There are snippy comments Weiner makes to her (“Make sure you leave a few minutes after me – otherwise someone may think we are married”). Abedin eyes the camera warily throughout – she never really sits down for an interview with the documentarians like Weiner does, and saying little on camera. He is a sympathetic person throughout the film – an obviously intelligent woman who, I think, would rather being going through this in private. She is also more than a little bit of an enigma.
As a documentary, Weiner is funny and sad, cringe worthy and fascinating. You want to look away – it’s never lost on the audience that we are watching real people go through something painful and personal – but you cannot. It’s one of the best docs of the year.

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