In the weeks since former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner's most recent, marriage-destroying sexting scandal, the documentary "Weiner" has gained new shades. Released this spring as a fly-on-the-wall portrait of how a marriage survives a sex scandal while a campaign dies, it now looks like a grander tragedy of a ridiculous man, one set years before the straw breaks the camel's back but with clear signs that the back's going to break.
The film takes place during Weiner's mayoral campaign in 2013, two years after an explicit photo posted on the then Democratic Congressman's Twitter account (not helped by his too apropos name) forced him to resign. Despite widespread skepticism, Weiner's scrappy, progressive message connects with voters, giving him reason to be optimistic until new photos of his correspondence with another woman ruins any chance at political redemption.
Directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg get a remarkable backstage look at the nuts and bolts of a thriving campaign turned into a walking dead one as initial excitement (cheering crowds at Pride parades, a montage of a bustling office set to "New York Groove") curdles to disappointment and frustration from staffers, Weiner and his wife, Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin.
Abedin is the most fascinating figure in Weiner in part because she's everything Weiner isn't: reserved, measured, and image-savvy compared to her pugnacious, easily provoked husband. There's a real sweetness to their early scenes together with their young son, which display what seems to be an ideal co-parenting situation and a woman who believes in her husband in spite of all of his flaws and past transgressions.
That support makes later scenes of Abedin all the more painful as she alternatively avoids looking at the camera or, just as often, shoots glances that amount to an implicit cry of "What in God's name am I going to do?"
Immediately after the second scandal breaks, a scene shows Abedin pacing, looking away from the camera as Weiner tries to explain over the phone to a supporter how he's going to deal with this. As he hangs up, an extended look between the two speaks volumes as they say nothing until Weiner asks for the room alone. "It's like living a nightmare," she says in a later scene, but she hardly had to say it.
Abedin's silent scream contrasts with the noise over the televisions as political comedians (Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, Bill Maher) and pundits (Rachel Maddow, Sean Hannity) ridicule Weiner. One smart edit cuts from their jokes at the politician's expense to Abedin, not watching the news but no doubt imagining the excoriating coverage all the same. It's easy to see how it adds up, and how one more mistake might crush their marriage even as she commits to keeping it together (especially as some pundits make bad-faith arguments about her motives).
Weiner, for his part, argues time and time again that mistakes in his personal life have nothing to do with the issues he hopes to tackle, and it's easy to feel his frustration early on, before the news breaks, as a New York Post reporter opens an interview with questions about the previous incident. As the scandal swallows his campaign whole, he acknowledges his mistakes while still lamenting the overheated rhetoric the press has taken toward him.
Still, "Weiner" doesn't let the man off the hook. Early in the film, his political rivals pile on about his morals, but they also refer to him as a "preening self-promoter" and a "glib narcissist," and there's more than a kernel of truth to it. Weiner comes across not as a courageous man with a fatal weakness, but as an egoist whose vices are an extension of a greater problem with him.
A key scene showcases a television appearance on "The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell." As the interview opens with the question, "What's wrong with you," O'Donnell's sanctimony is suffocating, and it's easy to start the interview off on Weiner's side. Then he opens his mouth, and out comes a desperate attempt to pivot and a hotheaded series of self-righteous insults and self-pitying justifications.
The directors cut from the cleanly produced interview to a distant shot of his remote setup for the show, Weiner yelling across the airwaves at O'Donnell and other people he'll never meet but who will determine his political future. It isn't an isolated incident: Whether he's shouting on Capitol Hill in stock footage or getting into an argument in a local shop, the time, place, and need for an argument doesn't matter. In private life and public battles, he cannot help himself.
"Weiner" is neither a hagiography nor a crucifixion of the man, but rather a suggestion that opposing arguments, "He was knocked down for the wrong reasons" and "He brought it upon himself," are equally true. At separate points, Weiner admits that he lied to the press but that "they don't do nuance," something the film allows. One can't help but ask the same question Kriegman, off-camera, asks Weiner after his landslide loss: "Why would you allow me film this?" Hubris and narcissism are almost certainly a part of it, but it's hard not to sympathize with Weiner as he voices his concern: "I'd hope that it's more than just a punchline thing."
"Weiner" is available on video-on-demand services like iTunes, Amazon and YouTube for $3.99.