There are two narratives jostling for dominance in the uncomfortably entertaining documentary Weiner. One is about a pugnacious but well-intentioned politician who does something unwise, then finds that a blood-hungry media and shallow public can't hear his message over the sound of their own self-righteousness. The other is about an arrogant liar and sex addict who squanders his chance at redemption after a nationwide humiliation. The fascinating thing about Weiner is that it doesn't definitively pick one of these angles over the other. Just by following former US representative Anthony Weiner around during his 2013 New York City mayoral campaign, directors Josh Kriegman (Weiner's former aide and district-office chief of staff) and Elyse Steinberg tell both stories at once. Their sympathy for Weiner shows in the way they present him, letting him frame his own story directly to the camera. But Weiner never feels like a one-sided apologia, because it also gives him enough screen time to damn himself with his own mesmerizing words and actions.
Weiner's unfortunate last name became the understandable focus of racy, punny headlines in 2011, when he publicly tweeted a clothed dick-pic meant as a private message for a 21-year-old college student. Once the youngest New York City councilman ever elected, then a 10-year veteran of Congress, Weiner resigned in 2011 in the wake of the scandal. Two years later, he entered the race for New York City mayor, and was leading in the polls when a second sexting scandal broke, involving more correspondents and much more explicit photos. Weiner opens before the second scandal, with Weiner ruefully acknowledging the first one. He plans a campaign strategy around cautiously worded admissions of guilt, and a request for a second chance to serve the public as a penitent, changed man. It seems to work, until the new news hits. Then the film watches his campaign circle the drain as he tries to circle the wagons.
Weiner is a brutal experience because it would have been such a different film if its subject had, as he claimed, stopped sending prurient pictures to strangers after he first got caught. Before the second round of revelations emerge, Weiner is a budding redemption saga, exactly the kind of scrappy-underdog-makes-good story Americans love in fiction. As Weiner builds a tiny, naked office into a thriving little call center, Kriegman and Steinberg track how he gets more energized and enthusiastic with every public appearance. As documentarians, they pull some shady tricks to highlight Weiner's campaign success: at one point, they show him whipping the crowd into a rapturous frenzy at a gay-pride parade, then cut to a pathetically small, silent entourage for competing candidate (and now mayor) Bill De Blasio, gamely marching along a near-deserted street. It's a cheap enough shot to provoke a big laugh, but devoid of context (is De Blasio in the same parade? Anywhere near the same area, or at the same time?) it's a gag, not a meaningful comparison. Another shot, where Weiner sits on the subway, theatrically looking around at the positive headlines about him, feels artificial, disingenuous, and wholly constructed. The camera angles don't add up — there's no way he could see what he's supposedly seeing from where he's sitting — but even beyond that, the comedic editing is straight out of the meta-narrative playbook of something like Private Parts.
Weiner doesn't need the artifice. Kriegman and Steinberg were granted impressive access to Weiner and his embattled wife Huma Abedin throughout the project, and the authenticity and intimacy of their footage is unbeatable. The filmmakers' cameras are on hand for awkward press conferences and disconsolate private postmortems, for Abedin's post-scandal stand-by-your-man campaigning, and Weiner's increasingly bitter sarcasm as she pulls a slow fade after the second scandal. Abedin has worked for Hillary Clinton in various roles since 1996, and is currently her campaign vice-chair; she's no stranger to political campaigns, or political scandals. But she's reportedly intensely private. And when the film catches her snapping at her husband, or walking away in horror as he cheerfully watches an MSNBC show where he got into a shouting match with the condescending host, the film feels breathtakingly personal.
In 96 briskly edited minutes, Weiner gets much closer to the real story than years of tabloid articles and late-night talk-show bits ever managed. Its biggest story, though, is the man himself, and how he reacts to feeling cornered: exhaustion behind the scenes, and revved-up attack-dog determination in public. Political docs often seem by-the-numbers, with brief slivers of candor spacing out a timeline of familiar public events. Weiner is one cringe-inducing real-life drama after another, as Weiner faces a palpably hostile crowd, exchanges snide schoolyard threats with a rival candidate, or shouts down a heckler at a public appearance. His mouth seems to get him into more trouble than his junk ever could.
The media gets him into trouble as well. It's easy to read that heckler face-off multiple ways. A stranger calls Weiner a scumbag just as he's walking away from a positive campaign stop at a Jewish bakery, and Weiner reenters the store to yell at the man. Perspective can turn that into Weiner rightly refusing to be bullied, or failing to control his temper, or as a calculated moment of honesty and confidence that won over potential voters earlier in the film. But the media (at least, in the clips Kriegman and Steinberg edit into the story) all spin the confrontation for outrage and laughs. No matter how viewers feel about Weiner's infidelities, or his repeated lies about them, it's still discomfiting to see how ruthlessly and single-mindedly the journalists around him chase any whiff of humiliation, generally with a tone of smug, patronizing superiority. It may be impossible for an empathetic audience to watch Weiner without wondering whether his inquisitors' text histories and chat logs are as Puritan as their attitudes, or whether the comedians snickering over his name would be as brave about their dirty laundry being aired.
Weiner can only engender so much sympathy before he starts sabotaging it
But Weiner can only engender so much sympathy before he starts sabotaging it. He seems genuinely devoted to his causes, but it's also clear when he starts hiding behind them, and resenting journalists for refusing to play along. His claim that he doesn't mind endlessly apologizing to the public, but that he wants the media to focus solely on his chosen issues, is simultaneously understandable and grotesquely self-serving. His wry humor is catching, but he pushes away sympathy with his weaselly words around what, exactly, he did to give his persecutors all their ammo. He generally refers to the entire sexting experience as "the thing," presumably to avoid any words that might be twisted into headlines or soundbites. But for all the film's penetration into Weiner's inner sanctum, it never develops any real insight into why a public figure with a name made for a sex scandal would risk a sex scandal, especially after scuttling his career once. Amid all the people loud, accusatory questions that forward obvious agendas, it'd be helpful to have someone asking "Why?" and getting a candid answer.
As the film's antihero, Weiner has a rabble-rouser's instincts and the combative spirit of a New York movie stereotype. His willingness to accept every fight offered to him keeps this documentary punchy and powerful. It's also a squirmy experience, particularly when one of Weiner's mercenary sext partners arrives on the scene, grotesquely eager for a share of the limelight and a quick buck. But the miracle of Weiner is that like the complicated man at its center, it's open to interpretation. Schadenfreude seekers who just want to see Weiner sweat and suffer will get their money's worth. But so will curious viewers who show up in a spirit of inquiry, looking for the full story. They'll get more than one.Weiner is currently in theaters, and will be available on cable VOD on Friday.