It was the break-out film at this year’s Sundance Festival, and critics of “Weiner,” a 90-minute documentary about Rep. Anthony Weiner’s disastrous campaign for New York City Mayor in 2013 are hailing it as a landmark. But don’t believe the hype. It’s a good flick – with steady pacing for the most part and a number of riveting moments — but it’s hardly a masterpiece. For one thing, the subject at the center of it — the loud-mouthed seven-term congressman with a passion for confronting his opponents, including fellow Democrats — turns out to be smaller-than-life. For all his sound and fury – which seemed at times to resemble mere temper tantrums, Weiner was never all that influential or effective politically.
The film starts with Weiner’s bold attempt at rehabilitation two years after reports surfaced that he’d texted photos of his penis to anonymous women on the Internet, forcing him to resign his seat in 2011. Not everyone thought Weiner should try politics again with public disgrace so fresh in the public’s mind. In one early scene, Weiner takes a call from a journalist who insists on knowing what he is still hiding, and whether more women will come forward. Passersby wonder if he’s really Anthony Weiner – yeah, that Anthony Weiner – and while some cheer others boo. There’s even a humorous snippet from Donald Trump who flatly declares: “We don’t elect perverts for mayor in New York City.”
One of the more fascinating aspects of Weiner is the co-starring role of his wife, Huma Abedin, who just so happens to be one of Hillary Clinton’s top aides. With her boss she’s always hovering quietly in the background but here she emerges as a force in her own right. She’s the classic political wife, devoted to her husband and always speaking up in his defense until she becomes increasingly humiliated as more and more revelations about the scope of his behavior unfold.
In fact, some of the more affecting scenes in “Weiner” are of the two of them together — either in the home attending to their young son, or at fundraisers where she urges others to support him. Weiner himself tells a group of women that if his wife ran for mayor, she would “crush” him. None of them disagree.
Weiner, initially, appears to be on the comeback trail. He banters with Subway riders who yell his name and give him the thumbs up. But it doesn’t last. The film makers are on hand when Weiner’s senior communications advisers receive word that new and more damaging “sexting” pictures of Weiner have surfaced. We get to see the team react with disappointment in real time, and watch as Weiner and his team are forced to go into damage control mode yet again.
The filmmakers gained unusually intimate access to Weiner and his inner circle, which allowed them to capture other intense and revealing moments. In one scene, Abedin is visibly disappointed with her husband and begins pacing the room with her arms folded across her hips. A long on-camera silence ensues, and Weiner ends up asking the film crew to step out of the room. Later, we get to see Weiner and his top communications director debating how to respond to the latest crisis in a shared limousine ride across the city. As Weiner fumbles, close ups of her face reveal the mix of thinly-veiled contempt and compassion she still feels for her boss.
The days leading up the election – he finishes last, with barely 5 percent of the vote — are almost surreal. Sydney Leathers, one of his sexting partners, begins appearing at public events and gives interviews to the media, while Weiner’s team plots how to avoid her. Despite being abandoned by his donors, he defiantly goes forward with a set of public events and gets pummeled. A group of Jewish men at a bakery heckle him on camera, and instead of retreating he engages them in vitriolic debate, which only damages him further.
As intriguing as “Weiner” sometimes is, it never addresses some key issues, including the obvious parallels between Abedin and Hillary Clinton’s relationships with their respective husbands. Bill Clinton officiated at the wedding of the Weiners and Hillary has referred to Abdein as her “second daughter.” Now that Clinton is running for the presidency, and retains Abedin at her side, how would these two highly enmeshed dysfunctional political family relationships – with their penchant for sexual intrigue, denial, and secrecy — affect a Clinton presidency?
And beyond Weiner, one has to marvel at how many top Democratic figures have been implicated in embarrassing sex scandals over the years, including JFK, Gary Hart, John Edwards, and Eliot Spitzer, among them. Do Democratic men, more secular than Republican men, and more often rooted in the 1960s counter-culture, simply have a more libertine attitude toward sexual infidelity? And does their staunch support for women’s rights also give them a sense of entitlement – and leverage over Democratic women who still depend heavily on them to promote their cause?
“Weiner” is a more than a cautionary tale of the corrosive influence of hubris on an aspiring political leader’s once-promising career. It also suggests that American politics — and perhaps liberal Democratic politics above all — lacks a foundation of personal moral character that has the potential to darken and tarnish even the brightest figures among them.