2013 mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner, a former congressmember. | SHOWTIME/ SUNDANCE SELECTS
The curse of Anthony Weiner’s life is that it can be so easily reduced to a tabloid headline about sexting. Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s documentary “Weiner” tries to mount a defense of the politician, but it too succumbs to the inevitability of making his online sex life the most interesting thing about him. Co-director Kriegman used to work for Weiner, and one can tell. The film’s “fly on the wall” — to use Weiner’s words — treatment is obviously biased in his favor. Nevertheless, Weiner comes across as a fundamentally angry, unlikable person, although he does have a sense of humor. The credits sequence makes a case for him putting this anger to good use as a progressive firebrand in Congress, showing cable news pundits praising his righteous tirades.
“Weiner” begins with him as a rising congressmember. Then, his sexting forces his resignation. Two years later, he decided to run for mayor of New York. Weiner was doing fairly well in the polls when a new set of revelations about his sexting came out. His supporters deserted him, and the media humiliated him all over again. Kriegman and Steinberg captured all this as it happened in the middle of Weiner’s campaign.
For much of the time, “Weiner” is as much about Weiner’s wife Huma Abedin, who works for Hillary Clinton, as Weiner himself. Like Hillary, she chose to stand by her man in the face of sexual betrayal. The product of this stance was a lot of ignorant conjecture about the workings of the Weiner-Abedin marriage.
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“Weiner” tries to add nuance to this picture by showing the couple at home. However, its attempts to counter the tabloid portrait of their marriage go too far in the other direction, such as playing a sound bite of some newsman saying “what he’s doing to Huma is spousal abuse” over images of benign domestic life.
All the same, one gets the impression that the camera-shy Abedin grew increasingly sick of the campaign and the media attention drawn by her husband. In fact, it might be more accurate to say that the press abused her, if anyone deserves that level of blame.
In the film, Weiner gets asked twice whether he’s an addict. He never answers the question. While he didn’t physically cheat on Abedin with another woman, his online flirtations seem incredibly foolish and insensitive, to put it mildly, and the film never addresses the question of whether all the recipients of his penis photos wanted them. But although it would be easy to label Weiner a sex addict, he seems to have a deeper desire to run into the spotlight no matter what the consequences might be. Running for mayor with skeletons in his closet is almost as foolish as the original sexting. In his personality, idealism mixes with narcissism. But his genuine desire to discuss political issues with New Yorkers gets sabotaged by the media by the time his campaign is halfway over.
“Weiner” doesn’t give one much sense of what the candidate stood for as a politician, although he repeatedly mentions that he’s in favor of single-payer health care and making New York “a city for the middle class.” His politics seem more coherent when he was a congressmember than as a mayoral candidate. It’s possible that the filmmakers are trying to make a point about the way Weiner’s scandals overshadowed the substance of his political views, but their film overlooks them as well.
I suppose it’s impossible to make a documentary on this mayoral race without focusing on Weiner’s controversies — no one made a film about Christine Quinn’s run, as far as I know. Like it or not, they’re the hook for “Weiner.” It’s an entertaining film, but one that partakes of the media circus it tries to criticize.
WEINER | Directed by Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg | Showtime/ Sundance Selects | Opens May 20 | IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave. at W. Third St. | ifcenter.com | Lincoln Plaza, 1886 Broadway at W. 62nd St. | lincolnplazacinema.com