Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Fresh Angles for Overexposed Weiner: Kriegman & Steinberg’s Tragicomic Political Documentary

Anthony Weiner in a scene from Weiner, a documentary by Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman. (Photo: James Estrin)

Former Congressman Anthony Weiner made international headlines (and what headlines they were) in 2011, when he accidentally tweeted a photo of himself in his underwear on his public twitter account. The incident, dubbed “Weinergate” by political pundits and late night TV hosts alike, brought disaster to Weiner’s political career. Although he initially blamed his questionable social media behaviour on “hackers,” a little digging proved that Weiner’s wiener pic was part of a larger series of bad choices involving several simultaneous online affairs he conducted behind his pregnant wife’s back. At the urging of no less than Barack Obama, Anthony Weiner resigned from Congress in the wake of his sex scandal but by 2013, he returned to the spotlight with an ill-fated campaign for the New York mayoral race. Weiner, a new documentary by Elyse Steinberg and former Weiner chief of staff Josh Kriegman, tells what should have been the disgraced politician’s 2013 comeback story. Instead, what Kriegman and Steinberg wound up chronicling is something entirely different and infinitely more interesting.

For those who have been more concerned with legitimate politics than whatever Anthony Weiner has been up to following his 2011 loss of face, Weiner retired from the public eye with his tail between his legs for a couple years amid rumours of rehab and separation from his humiliated wife, the savvy, intelligent, and impossibly elegant Hillary Clinton aide, Huma Abedin. In April of 2013, he announced he would be running for mayor of New York. Weiner adopted the “reformed rake” angle, claiming to be a changed man. His first TV spots for his mayoral campaign showed Weiner at home, feeding his infant son. People magazine ran a glossy spread of Weiner and family splashed with bold quotes like “I feel like a different person.” Huma, miraculously, was still married to him and bravely went on record claiming hard work and couples therapy saved their relationship. The people of New York City seemed ready to embrace the scrappy Democrat’s redemption story – but their forgiveness ran out by July of 2013 when Weiner was implicated in yet another sexting scandal, this one running concurrent to his return to politics and that saccharine People piece proclaiming his new identity as a die-hard family man. Best of all, Steinberg and Kriegman caught all of it on film.

And so Weiner wrote itself for the filmmakers, rapidly transforming from a linear redemption story about an underdog reclaiming his life into a multi-faceted character study of a flawed man wrestling with the shitstorm he created for himself. What elevates Weiner from sheer voyeurism to the documentary that received critical acclaim at Sundance is Kriegman and Steinberg’s camera work and the mind-blowing access they had not only to the inner workings of Weiner’s campaign but also the state of his marriage with Abedin, the largely mysterious figure who publicly stands by her man much to the world’s confusion. While the film resists giving the Weiners the full reality TV treatment by exposing too much of their relationship, the tension between them is palpable. Abedin vacillates between thousand-yard stares and moments of calculating PR genius as bombshell after bombshell is dropped on her. Weiner may be the documentary’s official subject, but through the lens of his trials and tribulations, Huma emerges as the star. Those expecting a glimpse at a long-suffering wife beaten into submission by her husband’s antics are in for a let-down: although she has occasional moments of vulnerability (such as when one of Weiner’s online mistresses arrives uninvited to his campaign party and Abedin, tall, graceful, and accomplished, panics about having to face the 23-year-old porn star), Huma is no wilting flower. Outside of press conferences where she succeeds at playing the devoted campaign wife, Abedin comes across as more of a business partner to Weiner. Instead of crumbling, Abedin seems to recognize that her marriage is a performance on both political and personal stages and conducts herself accordingly, repelling potential humiliation like some sort of superhero. At many points in the film, it almost seems as though Abedin knows her husband is a shitbag but doesn’t have the time or energy to care.

Then NYC-mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner with Huma Abedin at a 2013 press conference. (Photo: Michael Appleton/NYTimes)

Above and beyond, Weiner’s chief success is providing its potentially cartoonish namesake with the depth and nuance the tabloids denied him. Kriegman doesn’t pull any punches, nor does he make excuses for his former employer. Anthony Weiner’s shenanigans are captured and presented alongside clips of harsh media feedback and folded neatly into reactions both from him and the people close to him. His dead-in-the-water campaign is like a Russian nesting doll of issues: the larger story of his sex scandal cracks open to reveal a smaller series of incidents, like the on-air screaming match he has with Larry O’Donnell (which he rewatches gleefully after the fact, much to Abedin’s disgust), or a similar argument he has with an outspoken Jewish man in a bakery who accuses him first of being reprehensible and then, less sympathetically, of “marrying an Arab.” Each one is his undoing. In these instances, Kriegman and Steinberg present their subject as a man without foresight, a fighter willing to stand up for what he believes in even to his own detriment. Footage of Weiner’s often cringe-worthy outbursts is cut with more subdued formal interviews where the man reflects on his actions from a saner place, never quite atoning or apologizing in any sincere way, but musing poignantly about why he does the things he does, whether it’s the “superficial and transactional” nature of his political relationships that feeds his need for equally superficial and transactional relationships with disposable women, or the other way around. This is the Anthony Weiner that’s glossed over by the slew of dick jokes, the “flawed man” he describes himself as during the now infamous (and public) “Carlos Danger” messages Weiner sent to one of his sexting buddies. At last, the world is given some insight as to how an actual human being could make the astonishing errors in judgment Anthony Weiner has made. Finally, he is both punchline and tragedy.

Time and time again throughout this documentary, I wanted Weiner to stop catering to strangers’ baffling and unfounded second-hand feelings of betrayal, to simply shrug in the face of his attackers and say, “alright, I sent a couple Richard pics; let’s move on.” Weiner demonstrates that that’s not in its subject’s nature though. Whether assessing his disintegrating campaign or his struggling marriage, Anthony Weiner proves himself to be a man incapable of throwing in the towel when perhaps he ought to. Kriegman and Steinberg ask Weiner several times throughout the documentary why on earth he’s letting them film all this and he never has a concrete answer. Maybe it’s unbeknownst to Weiner and maybe it’s not, but the brilliance of this documentary is that just by existing it achieves what Weiner himself fatally could not: it opens the blinds, allowing the harsh light of day to settle on the cracks in Weiner’s life, exposing his indiscretions, mistakes, and shortcomings without the contrived mask of a PR team, saying “this is what it is; deal with it.” The film closes on a grim scene of Weiner and Abedin, pushing their baby’s stroller down a New York street, silent and unsmiling, but the credits turn the image around by presenting more recent footage of Weiner providing actual political insight on TV shows, and cracking jokes with hosts about the dangers of social media. In this way, Weiner tears the man down to build him up again, humiliating its subject before allowing him – and us, the masses eternally hungering for those salacious headlines – to let go.

After all, it was just a couple of Richard pics.

– Danny McMurray has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario. She is particularly enthusiastic about science fiction, horror movies, feminism, video games, books, opera, and good espresso – all of which she can find in spades in her home base of Toronto, Ontario. 

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