There would be no second act for Anthony Weiner in American (political) life, just a first act repeating itself. Or rather as his then wife, Huma Abedin, sheepishly quips in the documentary film about his failed comeback: “Reliving the nightmare.”
Weiner and Abedin were a power couple on the rise before his first sexting scandal turned him a running dick joke and laughingstock of the nation and forced him to resign from Congress in shame. After all, a 24/7 “news” cycle and the shark-tank of social media feeds on a story with legs — or in Weiner’s case, a bulge. And so the world was rapidly on intimate terms with Carlos Danger and #Weinergate. The New York Post carried out a pun offensive with their headlines, in no small part, thanks to his last name (see how easy it is).
At a time when media discourse is in the literal toilet, and the favorability of the political class in the United States is at a historic low, Weiner demonstrated that the only good politician is a humiliated one. And preferably unemployed. A former protegé of powerful New York Senator Chuck Schumer and a self-described liberal fighter for the middle-class, Weiner wasn’t ready to throw in the political towel. Nor it seems was Huma Abedin. At the time of the scandal, pregnant with his child, Huma stood by Anthony, despite her husband’s ‘riches of embarrassment’. As Hillary’s right-hand woman and chief of staff, many cynically drew parallels to the Clinton’s past ordeals, and interpreted Huma’s stand-by-her-man as a page of out her mentor’s playbook.
And so the documentary WEINER begins (also capitalizing on politician’s unfortunate surname) to follow Anthony’s resurgent run for NYC mayor in 2013, something Weiner had his eye on since 2005. Made by his former chief of staff, Josh Kriegman, along with Elyse Steinberg, the documentary is a thrilling, real-time insider account, not only of a campaign in shit-storm panic mode, but also a marriage under the dark clouds and pressures of politics.
Much has already been made speculating on the reason why Weiner would participate in a documentary. On the contrary, a documentary seems an obvious fit for his personality, and the theoretical perfect vehicle for his comeback. Sharp, charismatic, and unfiltered, Weiner’s passion is evident early on in archival footage from 2010 that celebrates him berating Republicans for hiding behind legislative procedure to deny medical care for 9/11 first-responders. Not to mention the surprising exhilaration of Weiner leading the charge during the Gay Pride Parade set to Ace Frehley’s ebullient “New York Groove”. For a brief moment, politics appear giddy, fun and urgent.
In an Indiewire interview, Kriegman has said himself that he and Weiner had been discussing the possibility of a documentary on and off after the first scandal. Then one morning, Weiner contacted him suddenly via text: “I’m running for mayor. I’m home with my staff. If you want to come with a camera and film you can.” Was this a calculated PR move or the impulse of personal vanity on Weiner’s part? Most likely both. Which speaks volumes to his layered appeal as a film subject. Though one does wonder if he first consulted with his wife.
WEINER was not the film anyone wanted or intended to make, and yet this is precisely what gives it a buzzing vitality and its laugh-and-cringe effect. In one notable scene in the midst of the scandal, Kriegman asks Weiner why it is hard for him to talk about his emotions. Weiner shoots back sarcastically that he thought this was a fly-on-the-wall documentary.
As the popularity of the documentary form grows, it has been enlisted by powerful people, celebrity estates, big institutions, etc. as a guarantor for authenticity and ‘realness’ that it believes is prized by a generation of millennials. At the same time, the act of documentary filmmaking can take on a life of its own, spinning out of the control of public relations and personal branding efforts, even the intentions of its makers, who in this case, were wise and humble enough to follow its lead. Note to those new to the form, remember to read the documentary label before opening.
While many see documentary as a vehicle for truth, its ultimate value may be in puncturing fantasy. After Anthony has flamed out in the polls and lost the election, we see a clip of newly-elected mayor Bill DiBlasio sworn in by Bill Clinton. The same Bill Clinton who officiated the wedding of Weiner and Abedin years earlier. That it could have been Weiner shaking hands with Bill does not got painfully unnoticed. We can only imagine that this was Huma’s hope and dream as well. As Weiner remarks: “She [Huma] was very eager to get her life back that I had taken from her, to clean up the mess I had made, and running for mayor was the straightest line to do it.” The straightest line to a fairytale ending veers off-road and takes a crooked ride through reality.
As new questions are being raised (mostly by Weiner himself) about Huma’s consent or lack thereof to appear in the documentary, we should be glad that she does show up. For many of us Washington outsiders, it is a rare glimpse of this mysterious Clintonista, and she imbues the film with a dignified pathos that moves the story from just another tabloid punchline to an emotional punch-in-the-gut. Through Huma, we see the various ways in which public and private life are intertwined, and also how one can be pulled in different, incompatible directions at the same time.
Usually a behind-the-scenes operative, Abedin seems genuinely terrified to speak publicly in defense of her husband at a press conference, reading from her notes and asking the gathered press for sympathy. Weiner compares her appearance at a fundraiser to silent star Charlie Chaplin speaking for the first time in a movie.
Showing her commitment to Anthony and contrary to her deep sense of discretion, Abedin trades on her influence with deep-pocketed Democratic donors to fundraise for Anthony as well as put on a brave face to campaign alongside him. She goes out on a limb for Anthony, only to see that tree ripped up from its roots in his hurricane of recklessness.
Despite all Huma’s efforts to stay away from the camera’s gaze, her face says it all. Throughout the ordeal, Abedin’s expressions register disappointment and despondency as she tries to keep it together while reliving the nightmare of another scandal that is an extension of the last one. Still, she genuinely seems to have affection for Anthony and his many talents as a politician. In a car ride interview, Kriegman asks Weiner if Huma loves him for his impulsiveness. He replies, “In spite of it.” Weiner misses the mark here, as her coyness and quietude is the perfect compliment to his bold personality. This has to be more than political calculation for her, and most of all, she must know that his biggest strength is also his greatest weakness.
With all that said and with everything on the line, Anthony manages to throw away the enormous emotional effort (and money) in remaking their image, years of therapy, and possibly worst of all, believing in each other and their mutual future again, all for the sake of empty sexting. This is more than wanton sexual betrayal, it is catastrophic disenchantment and an epic waste. To quote a Clinton, we really do feel Huma’s pain.
The film has scant room to psychologize Weiner or understand his compulsion to sext with strangers, as it tries to keep up with his frantic dodging of the details of his behavior in face of constant media scrutiny. So deep is his urge to avoid facing up to his indiscretion that Weiner only succeeds in blowing it up further, feeding the tabloids and social media in the process. So much so that the absurd climax of the film results in him using a McDonald’s as a backdoor entrance to his election night party to shake off Sydney Leathers — the young woman at the center of the second sexting scandal who sees an opportunity to seize the momentary media spotlight and confront him.
In an on-camera interview near the end of the film, Weiner grapples with his destructive behavior, reflecting that he may have become addicted to the immediate, superficial and transactional nature of our online world — as opposed to the real world that often includes compromise, self-sacrifice and respect for your partner. Before the first scandal broke out, Twitter was where Weiner found a sense of mission and meaning, his sharp tongue and off-color remarks earning him widespread popularity and attention. No doubt it was energizing for him as he was soon facing the sober responsibilities of fatherhood and domestic life. Even the The New York Times dubbed him a “technophile”, and detailed his social media reputation that seemed to replace his notoriety as a ladies’ man prior to his marriage.
While technology may be an easily available scapegoat, it can only act to amplify our very human flaws and blind spots that we willingly ignore at our own peril that can end up damaging those around us. It may also tragically lead us to believe that we can avoid our responsibilities and possibly even reality itself, encased in reinforcing virtual surrounds and filter bubbles, where consequences seem far away, invisible and often abstract. Anyway, we never really meant it in the first place, we tell ourselves, and continue on. Case in point, our soon to be Tweeter-in-Chief, Donald Trump.
So is Weiner’s refusal to stop himself a form of toxic male entitlement or internet addiction? From the film, it is far from conclusive. Media pundits are too busy asking what is wrong with Anthony Weiner to care to actually find out. Just another sad fact of our shallow news ecosystem, where answers take too long, certainly not likely to fit into 140 characters. At one point at his campaign headquarters, we do glimpse Anthony’s mother working the phone lines on her son’s behalf. We can only wonder what kind of interview account she might have given of her son’s behavior and how it might be interpreted.
Finally, the best documentary films have a way interacting with reality long after they are completed, haunting us with their fleeting images and captured moments. We now know that Huma has separated from Weiner after another sexting scandal, including one shocking image of him lying next to his toddler. It reminds us of a cringe-worthy scene from late in the film that plays for laughs.
In a lobby, Weiner argues with Huma about accompanying him to cast his vote for mayor. When she refuses for political reasons with the long shadow of Hillary’s upcoming Presidential campaign looming, Weiner carries his young son into the voting booth himself in front of the legion of waiting press. The kid then lets out a scream and starts crying. It seems a picture perfect, ironic ending to a tragicomic campaign.
Weiner can be forgiven much, but with the latest disturbing revelations, the laughter stops and curdles when we learn that he is willing to use his child as a prop, not only for his political benefit, but also for his sexual gain. One can only hope that he gets the professional help — rather than the superficial attention — that he so desperately needs, somewhere offline.