Political documentary meets cringe comedy in Weiner, which seeks to answer the question asked every time another public servant admits to a sex scandal: What was he thinking? Even after Gary Hart, Bill Clinton, and David Vitter (and that’s just at the national level!), we have yet to find an answer. Weiner, a sizzling film that documents the extended fall from grace of former Congressman Anthony Weiner, gets as close as anyone ever has. It depicts an electoral process that poisons the soul of all who participate and one man who, even after being poisoned, asks for seconds.
Those outside of New York may forget that the Weiner scandal actually unfolded in two distinct episodes. There is the first chapter, in which the feisty liberal congressman accidentally tweets a photo of his underwear—intended as a private message—to the public and is forced to resign. After laying low for two years, he runs for mayor in attempt to return to former glory. In the early going, it looks to be just that, but Weiner just can’t get out of his own way. With several months before the election and the candidate riding high in the polls, another woman comes forward bearing evidence that Weiner engaged in phone sex with her—after his resignation and public apology. Any sane candidate would drop out of the race at this point. Weiner stays in it, subjecting himself and his family to a deluge of insults, admonishments, and accusations of betrayal from the press, his staff, and his once-adoring public.
Told with riveting artistry and incredible access to the free-falling campaign, Weiner deserves a place in the pantheon of great political documentaries. The drama is inherent, and Weiner cuts a tragic figure that would fit alongside Shakespeare’s most complex political figures. He was a strong champion for New York’s working class—the film opens on his fiery House floor speech criticizing Republicans for blocking the 9/11 responders bill—but could never shake the perception that he craved attention more than meaningful reform. In the film’s final third, as he steadfastly refuses calls for him to drop out of the race, you’ll find yourself wondering who he’s really in it for.
Filmmakers Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg bring this slow-moving car crash to life by keeping their gaze trained on the human element. Whenever possible, their subjects are framed in close-up. While their mouths speak in the patois of politics, their eyes reveal deeper truths: in Weiner’s, a frantic desperation to sweep each new, damaging development under the rug; in his key staffer, a skepticism that masks her anger and disappointment at the breach of trust; and, most of all, in Huma Abedin, Weiner’s dutiful wife, perpetual shell-shock. Abedin, who watches her own political aspirations go down with her sinking ship of a husband, would have made a great silent film star. On camera, she says little, but her eyes express the acute sadness of this story that nobody can bear to voice.
In this way, Weiner is also a compelling domestic drama that captures a very public couple at their most private moments. With every wrong move that Weiner makes, we wonder how long Abedin can stand by his side, and it makes the question why he ran—and continued to run—even more central. The fact that Weiner never quite settles on an answer is easily forgiven. In fact, that’s the point. Maybe there is no why. Maybe Weiner—like Al Pacino once said in Michael Mann’s Heat—is nothing except what he’s going after. And maybe there’s nothing more American than that.
Weiner opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row.