Directors: Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg
MPAA Rating: (for language and some sexual material)
Running Time: 1:36
Release Date: 5/20/16 (limited); 5/27/16 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | May 26, 2016
Anthony Weiner may have made a fine mayor of New York City, and his political career might have taken off from there. If not for the circumstances that forced him to resign, he probably would have continued to gain attention in the U.S. House of Representatives, on account of his fiery and passionate speeches on the floor, as well as his confrontational manner with his political opponents.
Who knows where that career path would have taken him? He married a key aide to Hillary Clinton, so maybe we would be hearing a lot more from and about him in the current presidential race. Maybe his name would be coming up during the conversations about a running mate and various Cabinet positions.
There are simply too many ifs and could-have-beens in regards to Weiner's career. Weiner, a documentary that follows the politician on his promising-then-disastrous 2013 mayoral run, makes one wonder about two: What if he had done something worse, and what if he had a different name?
It's obvious that filmmakers Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg wonder about that second one. The film opens with a quote from Marshall McLuhan: "The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers." Indeed, Weiner's political career eventually would be defined by his name and also would go beyond the notion that the jokes write themselves. He was, as you may recall, caught accidentally sending a picture of himself in his underwear to anyone with access to his Twitter account—in other words, everyone. That led to further details about sexually explicit conversations he had with and photos he sent to female admirers.
Here, then, was a man whose last name was also slang for the part of his body that became an object of public scrutiny. In this instance, no jokes needed to be written. The situation was a joke unto itself, and Weiner, by his actions and his name, became the punch line. The film, of course, highlights the better jokes, as well as the headlines of newspapers like the New York Post and Daily News—headlines that probably tested the patience of even the most ardent lovers of pun-based humor.
One has to ask: If his surname instead had been, say, Smith, would the scandal have so thoroughly occupied the attention of reporters, pundits, and comedians? Surely it would have made news, given his position at the time, but maybe it—and, indeed, he—would have disappeared more quickly. After all, it wasn't as if he had done anything illegal. He hadn't made physical contact with any of the women with whom he communicated. It was, more than anything, embarrassing, and maybe that's another reason the revelations caught the public and the press' attention for as long and with such fervor as they did.
These are some of the questions that the film and, within it, Weiner himself address, although he also seems to wonder if his name made him the kind of man he is. He says he has heard all of the jokes already. He points out that he hates bullies. Put those two observations together, and maybe we can get a better picture of the whys of the man—some past experiences that, while he never states them outright, we can cull from his career, his attitude, and his seeming need to fight.
That last observation is the one from the film that sticks. As Kriegman and Steinberg follow the disgraced former Congressman through the process of his mayoral campaign, Weiner repeatedly picks fights with random people who dislike him and even those closest to him. The examples of the behavior are patently evident—such as when he argues with a heckler at a bakery—or just obvious—such as the passive-aggressive way he has with his wife Huma Abedin (In one scene, he scolds one of the directors for betraying the concept of being a fly on the wall by daring to ask him questions). Abedin is on the record of forgiving her husband for his online and phone indiscretions. Throughout the film, she has to repeat the sentiment over and over again, notably at her first-ever press conference, in which she talks about "a whole lot" of therapy between the couple.
We believe her, too. There are moments in the film, such as an instance in which she playfully pokes Weiner with a sign, in which it becomes obvious that she loves this man. He says, seemingly on the verge of tears in the aftermath of the campaign, that he believes her love for him is not because of his personality. It's in spite of the way he is. It almost appears as if the truth of their relationship is coming to him on the spot.
There are many scenes like that one, as Weiner's 2013 campaign and potentially his marriage come apart at the seams when more information about the scandal is introduced to the public—including pictures of him fully nude and details of phone sex with a disillusioned (and, likely, attention-seeking) fan. The filmmakers are there for most of it, save for a few instances in which Weiner asks for some privacy—but sometimes forgets that he's still on microphone.
scenes seem as honest as the one in which he describes the way he sees his wife's
love for him, but they're not flattering or sympathetic. Weiner tries to recall,
not the truth of his actions, but the answers that he gave to one reporter or
another. He's fine telling everyone what happened, but he's also either
hyper-aware that his statements are going to be scrutinized or just flat-out
lying about an already questionable timeline.
It's difficult to tell if even he knows anymore. We watch Weiner unfold in a weird combination of amusement for the absurdity of the situation (The film climaxes—no fooling—with a chase sequence), dismay at how natural Weiner is as a politician when he's allowed to talk about issues, and horror for Abedin, who is unfairly derided by the press, and the couple's son, whom Weiner parades around for ravenous photographers on Election Day. Late in the film, there's a key moment that makes us question if Weiner has been pretending to make himself look better. If he has, in what universe would he think some of this behavior would make him look good?
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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