“I guess the punchline is true about me. I did the things. But I did a lot of other things too.”
As he utters one of the opening lines in Weiner, a documentary directed by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, former congressman Anthony Weiner looks down and tightens his lips. Even with his tremendous powers of self-deception, he knows what he is saying is futile. As long as the media remembers his scandal, he will never cease to be a punchline.
Back in 2011, Weiner was a rising star in Congress. As the documentary shows in a flurry of clips, Weiner gained attention for his audacity. His refusal to back down earned him the praise of many in the Democratic Party. His wife, Huma Abedin, was the top aide to Hillary Clinton. He was on the cusp of great success.
Then, in May of the same year, a lewd photograph appeared on Weiner’s Twitter account. Soon after, he announced at a press conference that he had been sexting with multiple women for three years. In June, he resigned from Congress in shame.
In 2013, Weiner announced his candidacy for New York City mayor. After a convincing round of apologies, the people seemed to have forgiven him. Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg decided to film their documentary with the initial intention of capturing Weiner’s comeback. However, after a second scandal emerged in 2013, their cameras captured a different story. Because of Kriegman’s former position as Weiner’s chief of staff, they received startling access to Weiner’s downfall. With Weiner’s baffling decision to let them keep rolling, Kriegman and Steinberg depict the broken nature of American politics and a media that neglects the real issues in favor of ratings fodder.
Weiner’s undoing is made all the more poignant by exceptional editing and music: Eli Despres juxtaposes Weiner’s rise and fall to compelling effect. The rapid-fire clips of politicians and journalists praising Weiner portrays a meteoric rise to power. The guitar in the background heightens this portrait of a confident political star. Then, mid-montage, Weiner’s first scandal breaks and the music is replaced with percussion akin to Weiner’s nervous pulse. As media figures turn on Weiner and late-night comics let the jokes fly, the guitar returns, this time as a haunting reminder of Weiner’s past promise.
This kind of insightful juxtaposition runs throughout the documentary. A scene of Weiner flailing as goalie during a hockey game is set against a voiceover describing his massive unpopularity in the polls. In another, the film cuts between the two perspectives of a finished campaign advertisement and Weiner in the midst of filming it.
The insight, however, isn’t limited to the political machine; the film is also a look into his crumbling marriage. No matter the situation, Kriegman and Steinberg’s camera manages to find Huma’s face, perceptively developing her as Weiner’s foil. Weiner is impetuous and easily provoked; Huma is careful and composed. While watching a video of his outburst with MSNBC news anchor Lawrence O’Donnell, Weiner giggles, to which Huma responds “Why are you laughing? This is crazy.” The film is aware of the irony in Huma’s composure and Weiner’s lack thereof: the person most rational is not the politician. Weiner even says, “If she were the other candidate, I’d be getting crushed.” So why aren’t people like Huma the candidates, and people like Weiner are?
Weiner begs this question throughout, as Kriegman and Steinberg expertly use Weiner’s self-destruction as a lens for the dysfunction of our current political leaders. An example of this is when Weiner is goaded into a confrontation in a bakery, and upon watching a video of it, comments first on his thinning hair. When Kriegman presses Weiner about the incident, he waves his hands in exasperation, sips his coffee, and reacts defensively to Kriegman’s observation that he doesn’t articulate his feelings. In that crucial scene with Lawrence O’Donnell, Kriegman and Steinberg make sure to show Weiner alone in the studio, something news watchers never see. He continues to shout at nothing, unable to realize the media stopped listening when he starting talking policy.
This is the second idea Kriegman and Steinberg communicate so vividly. They clearly don’t condone Weiner’s actions, but they don’t condemn them either. Weiner laments the larger trend Weiner epitomizes, where the media chooses the juicy fare of scandal instead of the critical topic of policy.
A telling montage shows Weiner fielding questions from multiple reporters about his scandal. Rather than showing the reporters’ questions and Weiner’s answers in order, Despres cuts all of the reporters’ questions together and then all of Weiner’s responses. The succession of questions about the scandal emphasizes their maddening repetition, while Weiner’s attempt to move on is punctuated by shots of him discussing everything from healthcare to bike lanes. Despres finishes the montage with a moment that eloquently sums up everything that came prior: Weiner’s response about healthcare is interrupted by the question, “Wait, are there more women to look forward to?” Through scenes like this, Weiner criticizes the media officials who attacked Weiner not out of moral offense, but because a sex scandal is the lowest hanging sensationalist fruit.
Even with its disapproval of sensationalism, however, Weiner cannot escape the influence of its subject. Weiner himself is a sensationalist, albeit justified, individual. Before 2011, he would likely not have been chosen as the subject of a documentary. And although the structure is exciting, with each revelation about Weiner’s scandal edited to serve as a surprise, it forgets about the target audience: politically-minded individuals who would have followed the scandal in the news and therefore already know these “twists.”
Lawrence O’Donnell bluntly asks Weiner, “What is wrong with you?” The film does not give a definitive explanation, perhaps because its fly-on-the-wall style entails an absence of bias. This may also be interpreted as a reflection of Weiner’s own inability to find an answer, but it does make the unprecedented insight into his life somewhat inconclusive.
Although these events took place in 2013, Weiner has again entered the news in disgrace. He allegedly sexted an underage girl, prompting an FBI investigation. During this investigation, the FBI happened upon a slew of emails potentially related to Hillary Clinton’s email controversy. They then opened a new inquiry into Clinton’s emails, causing a disruption in the Clinton campaign mere weeks before the election. Now, the documentary’s message serves a kind of omen. Whenever a scandal seems to be nearing the end of its term—whether it’s Weiner’s sexts or Hillary’s emails—politics gets in its own way, and the cycle of the media repeats.