One month ago, I reviewed a fictional satire about the meteoric rise of one promising election candidate; this week, I’m recommending a nonfictional cautionary tale about the humiliating collapse of another. Elyse Steinberg’s and Josh Kriegman’s documentary about Anthony Weiner’s demise upon returning to politics in 2013 would have been serendipitous even without this week’s revelations, which extinguished altogether the glowing embers of his career.
There was a time when Weiner was set to achieve the impossible. In 2011, it appeared that he had somehow survived the ‘Carlos Danger incident’ and was set to re-surface on the political stage to launch a new phase of his political life in a bid for the New York mayoralty.
One might think the American electorate had inoculated itself three years earlier to voting for an unfortunately-named candidate. But if in 2008 a presidential candidate sharing a name with a war criminal was a vaccine, in 2011 a congressperson whose name heralds their greatest embarrassment was chemotherapy. Weiner, therefore, opens its 96 minutes with Marshall McLuhan’s aphorism “The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers.”
Before 2011, Weiner had catapulted himself onto the national stage by following Chuck Schumer, first to a seat on the New York City Council as its youngest ever member, and then to a seat in Congress thereafter. A man of bluster and performance, Weiner’s argumentative speeches on the House floor were a sight to behold. His loud and aggressive demeanor garnered him a reputation as a disagreeable boss, a pest to the opposition, and—in that style that means relatively little when it’s earned in a safely Democrat-owned district—a fiercely populist advocate. He was a man of posture; everyone knew it, and he knew they knew it; all the same, it worked a treat.
Then, in 2011, his career suffered a near-fatal case of nominative determinism. He had sent suggestive photos to a follower through his Twitter account. A few days of unconvincing denial didn’t help his case, and instead resulted only in awkward responses during press interviews to sanctimonious questions about whether it was, indeed, him, and whether he was, indeed, the kind of person who would do something so appalling—appalling, really!
Somehow, he weathered the storm. What’s more, he appeared to have done so only minimally scathed. At least that’s the account we’d believe if he had only himself to answer for.
Enter the documentarians Steinberg and Kriegman, who joined our besmirched antihero just as he was preparing to re-ignite the embers of his political career in 2013. Because they happen to have recorded everything from this point onward, we’re treated to three marvelous bits of film-making: first, we see just how inexhaustible Weiner’s demand for attention truly is, and how indeterminate are its effects. On one hand, Weiner tirelessly positions himself as someone eager to speak with and on behalf of his constituents, even if it means being upfront about his private life —tediously so, after the umpteenth interviewer rehearses the same tired questions about his sexual impulses. What’s more, the fact that he does it all for attention doesn’t remotely undermine that he listens to his constituents sincerely; we learn that he does respect the job, and he does want to respond to people’s concerns. On the other hand, Weiner is pathologically reckless about the toll his choices take on those close to him.
This brings us to the second great part of this film. Steinberg and Kriegman introduce us to Weiner’s wife Huma Abedin, who is by far the most interesting and inspiring character on screen. Abedin, anointed as Hillary Clinton’s number two, is clearly less drawn to the camera than is Weiner, but she absorbs every ounce of the audience’s attention whenever she’s in frame. Like her husband, she’s smart, composed, and principled. But the similarities seem to end there. She values political life, but not the spectacle; she sees herself as bound to constituents, but has to be coaxed to attend fundraisers or call donors; she is honest and precise in her language, but never reveals more than the question demands. For all her mystery, it’s in her that we vest all our sympathies and it’s on her behalf that we find Weiner infuriating.
Third, the documentary happens to have been present when the world learned that, contrary to Weiner’s assurances, he was still sending lurid pictures to fans. The first time was tragedy, the second was farce. The film interviews the recipient of Weiner’s affections, this time a 22-year old named Sydney Leathers, but not a moment longer than is necessary to prove how unimpressive she is and how tawdry were Weiner’s solicitations. What unfolds is less interesting for the deceleration of Weiner’s mayoral campaign than it is for the way he and Huma adjust to the impending humiliation they hoped to have survived.
My favorite scene in the film brings all three of these threads together at once: the morning after Weiner utterly botched an interview with an-even-more-pious-than-usual Larry O’Donnell, he wakes up to re-watch the video over, and over, and over again, until Huma just can’t handle any more of his self-flagellation. He scrolls back, repeatedly, to the moment when O’Donnell asks “What is wrong with you,” only to inspire another masochistic chuckle. He just can’t get enough of it.
On Sunday, Weiner struck out a third time. As though it really matters at this point, the photo he sent to another paramour contained an added indignity: it included his child. Both tragedy and farce, Huma had enough, and the pair have separated. I wish the both of them peace in this difficult time. For now, Weiner offers the closest insight into just how much pain they’re really going through.