As the representative for the Ninth Congressional District, Anthony Weiner was the quintessential new century Democrat. An advocate for expanding Medicare and a protector of abortion rights, Weiner also voted for the Iraq war resolution and to bar the Palestinian delegation from the UN. But his effrontery distinguished him from the pack. During the nadir of the Democrats as a moral force, Weiner wasn’t afraid to insult GOP colleagues, often in monologues distinguished by their vituperative eloquence. The gaunt Weiner couldn’t “do” ingratiation, for sweetness; he had the teeth of a guard dog growling on a front porch. Audiences beyond Brooklyn saw more of Weiner after the Democrats took control of the House in 2007 and especially during the 2009 health care debates. Marrying Hillary Clinton’s top aide Huma Abedin the same year (Bill Clinton officiated) solidified the Weiners as party elites.
Then Weiner started living up to his birth name. In 2011 Weiner sexted pictures of himself to a woman on Twitter, triggering a chain reaction of dogged and implausible denials until he admitted the truth at a gruesome press conference where he once again demonstrated he had no talent for contrition. Although he resigned months later, New Yorkers were themselves in a contrite mood and for a while entertained the idea of electing him mayor in 2014 – electing Weiner, that is, not Carlos Danger, the unfortunate moniker under which Weiner sent more dirty talk and pics to an Indianan named, are you ready, Sydney Leathers, who had first approached him as a concerned citizen disgusted by the first sexting incident but not by the former congressman’s choice of a name redolent of a departed Interpol bassist.
“This is the worst: doing a documentary on my scandal,” Weiner shares at the beginning of Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman’s eponymous film, which opens in South Florida after wowing’em at Sundance. I spent two paragraphs recounting the congressman’s disgrace to show how Weiner, which was shot as the scandal broke and boasts no talking heads, has nowhere to go once it puts the audience through the familiar paces. If it “raises questions,” to use the twaddle of political talk show guests, it’s in revealing the implicit collusion of legislators and the news-entertainment complex. A transactional arrangement, say: Weiner got more coverage for a mayoral race he knew he was going to lose while Colbert got material for penile puns.
If any figure emerges from Weiner with a crumb of sympathy, it’s Huma Abedin, complicit in the fate of the husband to whom she pledged in public to stand beside. Steinberg and Kriegman’s setups don’t extend the sympathy, though: with her crossed arms, set jaw, and implacable expression, Abedin is every smart woman who’s had to eat crow for the sake of an imbecile (that Abedin’s former boss was in the same quandary is a painful quirk of fate). After the first texting incident, Steinberg and Kriegman show her dutifully calling donors with the enthusiasm of a halfback at a ballet recital. “How was the engagement? Gimme all the details!” she chirps at a possibility (I don’t doubt one of Weiner’s own aides supplied Abedin with the biographical detritus of whoever is on the other end of the phone). When she served Clinton as her indispensable aide, Abedin never had to deal with the public; as the scandal hits it’s clear she and Weiner are in a race to see who is worst at soliciting anything from anybody. In almost as bad a pickle are Weiner campaign employees, one of whom confronts the boss at a heart-to-heart with, “I’m not in a good place,” which no person over the age of sixteen should be expected to bear.
Wearing its conventional cinéma vérité drag, Weiner doesn’t address whether Weiner owed his constituents something for asking his constituents’ forgiveness. When he resigned in 2011, recall, the seat went to a Republican in a special election. Whether Weiner would’ve run for mayor at all had he controlled himself is an obvious point. In a town hall meeting at which he thinks he can persuade voters to pay attention to the inequities of the tax code, a man disabuses Weiner of the idea that the mayoral candidate could expect to act as if nothing had ever happened. And there’s something to Weiner’s assertions, which meshed with his cutting instincts and well-cultivated sense of martyrdom, that the sexting concerned no one but him and his wife – and “my god” as he was wont to add during sententious moments. To accuse voters of caring unduly about a situation he started and to triumph anyway proved too dexterous a contortion feat for Weiner. No doubt he studied the career of Abedin’s former employer’s husband.
Reliant on the un-charm of its anti-hero, Weiner asks viewers to identify with the man’s outrage over the media’s obsession with banalities. An excerpt from Weiner’s interview with MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell ends with the candidate reducing the gasbag into guitar picks, thanks to O’Donnell’s imagining that he holds degrees in psychiatry and psychology (‘What’s wrong with you?” is the first question). Yet Steinberg and Kriegman only followed Weiner and Abedin around in the first place because of the sexting nonsense; they show no interest in public policy. This was the other reason for my mentioning Weiner’s political positions in the first paragraph. Reducing Anthony David Weiner’s profile to serial texter of naughty images might be the job of Wikipedia lead writers, but watching Weiner it’s unclear if that was its makers’ intention.