The crackling political documentary “Weiner” opens with a self-reflective admission from its subject, the embattled New York politician Anthony Weiner. “I can’t believe I’m doing a documentary on my scandal,” he sighs. Believe it, Anthony, and believe me, it’s one of the sharpest and most entertaining pieces of political farce on the current media-saturated moment.
Directed by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, “Weiner” hums with energy, mimicking the hyperactivity of its subject, the passionate, mouthy, and hubristic Brooklyn politician Anthony Weiner. The film takes place during Weiner’s 2013 campaign for New York City mayor, two years after his first sexting scandal resulted in his resignation from Congress. It’s cinematic serendipity that a second scandal, featuring nude photos of Weiner’s weiner, breaks during the mayoral primary while they were filming.
“Weiner” is a perfectly absurd piece of political satire, but ultimately, it’s not a film about politics, but about the media. If it were about politics, it would be about Weiner’s stances on the issues, but no one is interested in that. Every time he holds a press conference and asks for questions “on topic” — the topic being say, housing in the Bronx — there are crickets from the media pool. The second he lets up an inch, they’re screaming “how can we trust your judgment?” in his face.
Weiner’s co-star in this debacle is his elegant and beleaguered wife Huma Abedin, an aide to Hillary Clinton, who speaks volumes in her silences, her sad eyes communicating more than anything she might say, which are often carefully thought, diplomatic statements. In one scene, perfectly coiffed, lipsticked, and clad in a stylish and demure dress, she pops a morning vitamin and evenly remarks to the camera, “it’s like living in a nightmare.” That’s as uncensored as Huma gets.
The couple are seemingly total opposites, Huma poised and measured, Anthony a lit fuse ready to blow, a rapid-fire trash talker extraordinaire. The film doesn’t overly concern itself with why they stay together — the talking heads on the news psychoanalyze the marriage ad nauseam. But the couple seems united on the issues, at least, if anyone would ever let them talk about them.
Weiner repeatedly mentions wanting to get out of his defensive crouch — and he finally does when his poll numbers are so low that there’s no way he’ll win. He lets loose on TV host Lawrence O’Donnell, who excoriates him with a withering “what’s WRONG with you?;” and on a constituent who drawls, “you’re a real scumbag, Anthony,” as he exits a Jewish bakery; and at a town hall meeting on City Island, where Weiner tells a critic, “You don’t have to vote for me, but don’t deny these people the right to.”
Weiner says the scandal has been analyzed ad absurdum and fears the film will suffer the same fate. It’s true that there are some truly absurd and delightful moments captured in the film. Weiner dancing to reggae and chirping “bup bup bup” into the mic on his West Indian Day Parade float is wildly funny, and the sequence where he tries to avoid sexting partner-cum-porn star Sydney Leathers at his own election day party and ends up chased by her through a McDonald’s is mind-boggling. Scenes of Huma angrily eating pizza are eminently gif-able for use expressing exasperation with vainglorious and ridiculous men.
Anthony Weiner has no shame — you can see it when he rips into O’Donnell and gleefully watches his clips the next day, when he prances into the West Indian Day parade crowd, when he steers the conversation back to the issues. He doesn’t give the media the pound of flesh, the sorrowful garment-rending and shame-filled prostrating that they want. He apologizes, he answers the questions, his wife makes statements, but still they want more. How can we trust you, they say. You lied, they say.
One has to wonder why someone like Donald Trump hasn’t been given the Anthony Weiner treatment, with sexist comments and scores of skeletons in his closet, ex-wives’ accusations of mistreatment and women who have said they feel uncomfortable around them. It seems that Trump is rewarded by the “pics or it didn’t happen” philosophy of the current era, the undeniability of photographic evidence coupled with the tendency to ignore the things that women say.
It’s timely, it’s entertaining, it’s a blast of energy, but “Weiner” also drills down into the unique nature of American politics in the media saturated, smartphone-enhanced, Twitter hot-takes age. In the attention economy, sex scandals drive clicks for media outlets. What “Weiner” effectively draws out is how individuals, grabbing for their own attention — Anthony Weiner and Sydney Leathers are not so different in their attention-seeking — throw wrenches into the process of politics. The real shame here is how none of that attention goes back to the issues that affect the everyday lives of the American people. [A-]