‘Weiner’ is a study of political self-destruction

‘Weiner’ looks at the 2013 mayoral campaign of former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner.

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

“Weiner” is an involving political documentary about former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, who represented New York’s ninth district for seven terms until his career ended in scandal in 2011 when he was caught sexting and posting a link to suggestive photos of himself on social media. 

The film, however, is not about the scandal but Weiner’s 2013 try for a political comeback, running for mayor of New York City.

Directors Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman begin their intimate documentary with a reminder that Weiner already had a media problem with his name. That didn’t prevent him from being elected to the House in 1998, and he was praised as one of the few Democrats to stand up to Republicans in Congress. 

The documentary then quickly recaps the scandal and subsequent frat-house fun that some in the media and late night comics had with his name. 

Finally, Weiner was forced to resign, apologizing to voters and his family for the shame and vowing that it would never happen again.

American politics, as the film notes, is all about second chances. In 2013, it looked like the scandal had run its course. Weiner and his wife, Huma Abedin, a close associate of Hillary Clinton, had dealt with the marital issues sparked by the scandal. Weiner decided to run for mayor of New York, with Abedin bringing her political skills to bear in launching the campaign. 

Abedin may have encouraged her husband to run, in part to get past the damage that the scandal had done to her own career. However, viewers fearing — or hoping for — unflattering revelations about Clinton from Abedin will find none in this documentary. 

Weiner talks directly to the camera, long after the events at the center of the film, in a kind of confessional narration. This sets the stage for fly-on-the-wall footage of the campaign run, which makes up the bulk of this surprisingly poignant documentary. The filmmakers return to Weiner’s narration from time to time, but they say little themselves. Weiner, and his actions, say all that is needed. 

At first, the campaign goes well. Weiner develops a passionate following of voters willing to give him a second chance and who are drawn to his practical ideas and progressive ideals. 

Following him on his campaign stops, the camera reveals him to be smart, tireless and eager to help, as well as a man energized by the crowds. People respond enthusiastically to Weiner. When opponents raise the old scandal, Weiner calmly sticks to the issues. His supporters, meanwhile, even shout down candidates who try to bring up the scandal.

But then more photos emerge, even worse ones, along with more sexting to more women—and Weiner’s mayoral campaign unravels. Moreover, some are dated after Weiner’s resignation from Congress.

The documentary seeks the more thoughtful story underneath the scandal. The fly-on-the-wall approach gives the audience a sense of intimacy, closely following the couple as well as staffers. The staff seem to forget they are being filmed, having to remember to close doors or hold back information. 

Tellingly, Weiner seems to fall into this unthinking mode as things go wrong; Abedin always casts an eye at the camera, never forgetting it is watching.

The film notes that this is a sex scandal, not corruption, sinking the career of a promising politician, raising  questions about the criteria we use in electing representatives. But the scandal does reveal flaws in judgment and character, and either an unwillingness to face truths or an inability to do so. It is a story about a flawed man, of wasted potential, of someone who was his own worst enemy. 

As the reborn scandal emerges, the couple have very different responses. Abedin, never forthcoming to begin with, becomes even more opaque and elusive, dodging the camera. Her feelings are expressed in embarrassed silences and eye-rolls. 

Weiner, on the other hand, responds with wild, angry attacks and a total loss of perspective. It is like watching the proverbial train wreck. In perhaps the most bizarre confrontation, Weiner engages in a shouting match with a voter, an Orthodox Jewish man, after remarks made by the man in a kosher deli where Weiner had been campaigning. 

Yet, despite it all, we never really learn the answers to many questions: Why did Weiner do it? When were the messages sent? Why did he think they wouldn’t come out? Did he really understood his role in his own downfall? 

The lack of explanation or deeper resolution leaves this documentary feeling incomplete, somehow, but “Weiner” is an interesting examination of political self-destruction.