Overview: A disgraced former congressman attempts to restart his career in a bid for New York City mayor. IFC Films; 2016; 96 minutes.
Don’t Meet Your Heroes: If you know the backstory, or if you’ve read the early reviews, or if you’ve watched the trailer, or if you watched The Daily Show or Fox News any time between 2010 and 2013, you likely know that Weiner, the new documentary from Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg chronicling the mayorial comeback effort of shamed New York Congressman Anthony Weiner, makes for an uncomfortable viewing experience. But for those who supported Anthony Weiner before the scandal, for those who were eagerly tracing the trajectory of his meteoric rising star status within the Democratic party, no segment of this film is more difficult to watch than its montage opening which showcases a sort of greatest hits collection. When serving on a federal level, Anthony Weiner was a left-wing pitbull, a battle-hungry ally to the working class, to the 9/11 first responders, and to the uninsured, who wasn’t afraid to sink his teeth into conceptual opponent and shake them into submission. To see him once again pound his fist into a podium, stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Peter King and call the New York Republican a “crybaby,” and disrupt procedure to remind the House of their moral and ethical duty serves as a disheartening reminder of what is historically and currently lacking from the Democratic party. In the third act of Weiner, Sydney Leathers, the most prominently cited sexting partner of Anthony Weiner, confesses that she’s still angry at him and summarizes her experience by reiterating the oft-repeated message “Don’t meet your heroes.” That’s good advice, it turns out, as anyone who once placed Anthony Weiner in hero status now knows him far too intimately to ever return him there. Kriegman and Steinberg are determined for the viewer to know him even more than that, at least as much as they have come to, and the result is a disorienting re-evaluation into the fabric that makes up political servitude and ambition.
The Hot Dog Factory Tour: If 1993’s The War Room was the quintessential documentary about the complex mechanical parts of a political campaign, then Weiner is its equal in investigating the coded program of a campaign’s central operating system, that is, the perhaps narcissistic and perhaps sociopathic ego of the candidate. Kriegman and Steinberg have the most cunning ways of framing Weiner’s campaign bid so as to reveal the performative hollowness of its most important and grand gestures. An aggressive and combatant TV interview with Lawrence O’Donnell is edited so that the film cuts back and forth between the MSNBC produced version and to the documentarians’ footage of Weiner sitting alone in a studio, shouting and snidely commenting into empty space (O’Donnell is recording in a D.C. studio for the interview). The process of filming political ads is presented similarly, with the primary narrative camera observing Weiner delivering melodramatic monologues into a second camera with no production music or effect. When circumstances dictate that Weiner extend yet another explanatory apology, the filmmakers capture him practicing the sincerity of his speech at a podium in an empty room. This film removes all of the substance that the performance of politicians promises. And it’s not just Weiner; Weiner’s wife Huma Abedin, herself a prominent young figure in the party and in a narrative sense the most sympathetic victim of the film subject’s indiscretions, is peripherally observed making concessions for the purpose of political power plays. Later, the film directly insinuates that current presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton asks Huma to divorce Weiner as a requirement for working on her presidential campaign. Watching Weiner begins to feel a little like putting on the They Live glasses and observing cold creatures emulating the lives of humans to gain their trust and support.
Are They Even Real People: Complaining about the untrustworthiness, insincerity, and disingeniousness of politicians is as much a part of participating in the American democratic process as voting. “They are just not like us,” every voter ends up conceding at some point. This is particularly true now when political office-holders are subjected to much more invasive and constant media coverage. One would have to possess a certain disposition to seek that out while believing that he/she had the answer and ability to make life better for those they represent. Late in Weiner, a dejected Anthony tries to explain, “The same constitution that I have that made me do the dumb thing made it possible for me to weather stuff without it gutting me…” This is one of the most insightful moments in a film full of full of jaw-dropping confessions. There has never really been an artifact that admits and measures the difference between American citizens and American politicians in terms provided from the politician’s perspective. Shortly after this, Weiner learns from his pollsters that his chances have diminished, and he chooses to still attend a campaign event in City Island, a neighborhood where his approval is almost non-existent. Here, the first question presented from a skeptical attendee seems like an impossible one, but a seemingly heartfelt Weiner turns it around with earned empathy and exhibited passion. It’s astonishing and inspiring. It might make you wish, for a moment, we could get the old Anthony Weiner back. But now, because of this film, we know that that guy was also a work of political fiction.
Overall: Weiner is a one-of-a-kind political documentary which, between moments of awkward hilarity, explains the psychology of the modern politician in clearer terms than have ever existed.
Featured Image: IFC Films