Last night my wife and I, along with two of our adult daughters, saw the documentary Weiner. The film was shot during Anthony Weiner’s campaign in the Democratic primary for mayor of New York. It offers an extraordinary look at a candidate and a campaign in the midst of an implosion.
The documentary opens with a clip of Weiner giving a speech in the House. It is a reminder of what a vicious partisan he was. Watching that opening, you might think–as I did–that his downfall couldn’t have happened to a more miserable son of a b****. On the other hand, most Democrats probably ponder what a misfortune it was to lose such a tireless fighter for the underdog.
When the film begins, Weiner has already suffered his original scandal and has resigned from the House. It is now a couple of years later, 2013, and he has embarked on the path to redemption by running for mayor. Weiner invited Josh Kriegman and Elyse Sternberg to film his campaign and gave them (almost) unlimited behind the scenes access. So the viewer follows along as Weiner takes an early lead in the primary, and then watches the campaign’s sickening collapse when his second sexting scandal–the one in which he posed as Carlos Danger–comes to light.
Weiner is well worth seeing. It is engrossing and often funny. Anthony Weiner himself comes off surprisingly well. He has a sense of humor and shows flashes of self-knowledge, works tirelessly and sometimes effectively as a candidate, and shows courage when he continues his doomed campaign, fulfilling commitments for appearances when he knows the result will be humiliation. At the same time, his flaws as a person and a candidate are baldly on display: he lies, lacks self-control and is hyper-combative at all the wrong times.
Huma Abedin, the second most important figure in the documentary, also comes off better than I expected. Early on, she stands by Anthony. As events spiral downward, she has a clearer sense than Weiner of how badly things are going and begins to distance herself from the campaign. Abedin is sometimes inscrutable, but the documentary conveys a sense that she could be a formidable person, fitted to do more than carry Hillary Clinton’s luggage. Speaking of Hillary, she makes an appearance by proxy when “Philippe”–presumably Philippe Reines, a Hillary aide–starts giving Huma instructions over the telephone.
Who comes off badly? Sydney Leathers, for one. Leathers was one of Weiner’s sext pals; she says in the film that she had phone sex with Weiner up to five times a day. She is hell-bent on capitalizing on her moment of fame. Perhaps Weiner‘s most bizarre sequence takes place on the evening following the primary, in which Weiner has been crushed, getting just 4% of the vote. Weiner is trying to get to an upstairs room where his staff is holding a wake, while Leathers waits to confront him, cameras rolling, in a bar downstairs. Weiner’s staff comes up with a plan to sprint through a McDonalds and take a back staircase, dodging Weathers. Weathers gets wind of their approach and chases Weiner through the McDonalds and up the stairs. Happily, at the last moment Weiner told Huma to stay in the car and go home rather than endure this final embarrassment.
In Weiner, you see the sexting scandal through the eyes of third parties, mostly late-night comedians, although Donald Trump also makes a brief but hilarious appearance. The texts and photos themselves are generally censored, so that the viewer who doesn’t already know the details of the story may be confused as to what, exactly, Weiner did. Having seen one of the original photos that caused Weiner’s retirement from Congress, I can attest that in some of them, at least, there was no underwear in sight.
At one point in the film, Weiner is asked what has brought him down, and part of his answer is that he has a funny name. That is true: the congruence of name and behavior created a field day for comedians and, above all, the tabloids. Over the course of the film, we see a number of New York Post covers, like these:
We were reminded of this problem while driving to the movie. We wondered how long the film is, and one of my daughters Googled “weiner length” to find out. Realizing her mistake, she revised her search to “movie weiner run time.”
Watching Weiner move toward its inevitably disastrous end, a viewer can’t help wondering why the candidate never turned off the cameras. That question is posed near the end of the film, but not really answered. All I can say is, I’m glad the cameras kept rolling and the documentary was made. Anthony Weiner perhaps thought the film would, at the end of the day, make him look reasonably good and explain his self-destructive behavior. If the first goal was at least partially achieved, the second wasn’t. The one person who perhaps could have shed additional light, Huma Abedin, isn’t talking: she grows more remote as the film goes on.
In short, if you think you might like Weiner, you should see it. You probably will. Here is the trailer: