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Plenty of Americans would be perfectly happy never to hear the name Anthony Weiner again; some will never tire of it, especially the last part. But Sundance has never had a prohibition against political docs delivered years after people might be asking for them (see, or don’t: 2013’s The World According to Dick Cheney; 2014’s Mitt), and the thing about Weiner is, it would be a captivating tragicomedy no matter what year it came out. Trumped-up scrutiny over what Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman’s film has to say about Hillary Clinton will flit away — despite co-starring one of her closest aides, it has next to nothing to say about the reasons to support or oppose her. But some of the things it demonstrates about political humans in general, and this scandal-tainted one specifically, should suffice to draw moviegoers when it hits theaters in May.
Kriegman worked for Weiner in 2005 and 2006, which presumably explains not just why he and Steinberg were given access to the politician’s run for mayor in 2013, but how they stayed in the room once a second wave of sexting revelations broke. Neither has made a feature before, but together with editor Eli Despres (Blackfish), they tell this story expertly.
Viewers inclined to skip to the next headline when they see sex-scandal news will need to bone up before arrival, as the film zips through round one of Weinergate in the opening credits — contrasting Weiner’s fiery performances in the House of Representatives with the New York Post headlines that helped force his resignation from office. We then leap immediately to 2013, two years after that resignation, when the politician asked New Yorkers to give him a second chance and make him mayor.
The filmmakers start by establishing a crucial bit of family context — yes, Weiner lied to his wife (and longtime Clinton aide) Huma Abedin about his crotch-shot tweet at the same time he was lying to the public; yes, she genuinely wants him to get back into the public sphere now that their marriage has weathered the storm. “She was very eager to get her life back that I had taken from her,” he says — one of many moments here in which, away from journalists and voters, Weiner takes full blame for the harm he has caused.
And then we’re off, into the fray of deflecting the inevitable jokes, wooing the electorate and trying to focus on the things Weiner believes he can do for New York City. We see him defend himself in a string of telephone interviews; we watch him and Abedin getting testy during a marathon of schmoozy calls to potential campaign donors. Kriegman and Steinberg talk to the surprising number of teens and twentysomethings working on the campaign, seeing how they’ve metabolized past bad news about their boss and decided to focus on his politics instead of his pants. “If Huma can forgive him, who am I to hold a grudge?” is the general sentiment.
The film is in the middle of a things-are-looking-up montage, all high-energy parades and substantive policy talk, when the other shoe drops: Somebody leaks old photos that are more graphic than the ones we’ve seen, and the name Carlos Danger enters the lexicon. Most damaging is the revelation that Weiner’s sexting continued after he made his public mea culpa and resigned from Congress. In fact, some may have been contemporaneous with a splashy “I’ve changed!” magazine spread featuring Huma and the couple’s toddler son.
Plenty of political docs let us see a campaign confronting bad news, but this is a doozy, and the level of access here makes the film hard to turn away from. Tense meetings with advisers who feel betrayed; glum moments in the candidate’s home — still, there’s an air of determination one has to admire.
And then there’s the rest of it: We watch as the candidate finesses how the truth might be presented so as to give an untruthful impression. We see his snotty side as he deals with hecklers. In one of his ugliest moments, he’s thoroughly insufferable in response to the obnoxiousness of MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell. Ever wonder what Huma thought of that performance? Here’s your chance to observe it in real time.
“I hate bullies,” Weiner says in defense of his outbursts. Fair enough. And there’s surely truth to his lament that “there’s a phoniness” in his opponents’ moral outrage over his stupid but legal misbehavior. But he’s doomed, and he’s not helping himself. As the bad news mounts, one has to marvel at, and almost to respect, the self-delusion required for him to think he can win this fight.
There’s plenty of juice in the film’s account of the final days before the primary election that humiliated Weiner: Abedin has to debate the wisdom of appearing with her tainted husband on camera; one of Weiner’s old phone-sex pals (codename “Pineapple”) makes a pathetic attempt to become this year’s Monica Lewinsky. If you think knowing the election’s outcome eliminates the drama, think again.
Weiner doesn’t plumb its subject’s psyche; it tells us nothing about the scandal that hasn’t been revealed already (thank heaven); it may not even help the undecided understand whether they should celebrate the end of his political career or think it’s a shame. But it’s an invigorating chance to experience from afar an ordeal that, unless your name is Eliot Spitzer, you and I will never have to endure.
Distributor: Sundance Selects
Production company: Edgeline Films
Directors-producers: Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg
Screenwriters: Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg, Eli Despres
Executive producers: Julie Goldman, Christopher Clements, Carolyn Hepburn, Lily Fan
Director of photography: Josh Kriegman
Editor: Eli Despres
Composer: Jeff Beal
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Not rated, 95 minutes
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