You know the story of Anthony Weiner: Hyper-active, articulate, funny, and pugnacious young congressman meets embarrassing political downfall in 2011 over social media gaffe, which also happens to be an odd form of non-physical infidelity. He then rises from the ashes two years later in apparent redemption, briefly leading the pack of candidates vying to be mayor of New York City. Then, he's laid low when it's revealed that he had been playing with his phone with his pants off AGAIN.
The rehash of the Weiner's well-worn tragic-comic story is the least interesting part of the new documentary Weiner (which I saw at a Rooftop Films screening last week). What is riveting is watching two talented and ferociously ambitious people — Weiner and his wife, Hillary Clinton's right-hand and "body-woman" Huma Abedin — try to maintain their troubled marriage, raise their young son, and "get their lives back," which to them means being close to the levers of political power. Watching these two people debase themselves repeatedly all for the sake of naked ambition and a need to be beloved by strangers makes the film play like a horror-comedy.
Weiner literally frames his attempt at a political comeback as a gift to his wife, telling the off-camera filmmakers that Abedin "was eager to get her life back" and running for mayor was the "straightest line to do it." For those who don't fetishize elected officials and are generally cynical of the two-party electoral process, it's tough to understand who would want to endure living in a fishbowl filled with piranha at any point in one's life, much less so soon after going through such a public humiliation. But Weiner's desperate neediness, not his sexual compulsion, is the claw that repeatedly emerges from the ground to suck him back into the pit of hell.
The level of access the filmmakers enjoyed — everything from Weiner watching his own news clips in his boxer shorts to the conversation where he tells Abedin that his second round of sexting indiscretions took place during a period when they were considering separating — is remarkable. There's hardly a moment in the film where you don't want to grab Weiner by the ears and say, "Dude! Don't do that." But he does it anyway, and when he does, it's more sad than funny (though it's still plenty funny).
It's this level of unfiltered realism that makes these two already well-exposed people, who because they exist in the realm of electoral politics always appear inhumanly polished, actually come off as devastatingly vulnerable people in a situation which they both know early on will end badly for them.
When Weiner is "dialing for dollars," literally begging donors for maximum campaign contributions, he needs to be bailed out by Abedin, a much smoother operator with a deeper war-chest of contacts than her considerably baggage-addled husband.
When the second scandal erupts, we're in the room when Weiner's staff rips into to him for being so reckless and unforthcoming with them. When he hits the campaign trail, he's called a "pervert" and a "scumbag," and for every moment where he exhibits grace under pressure and wins over a tough crowd, there's a later moment where he completely loses his composure and creates more viral video nightmares for himself.
By the time he appears on Lawrence O'Donnell's MSNBC show, he is a flailing bag of bones, confident only in his ability to verbally parry with the best of them. Following this appearance, he is seen in his apartment obsessively huddled over his computer, giggling as he re-watches the segment while Abedin sulks in the corner, unable to bear what's on the screen or the other person in the room.
As Weiner's campaign comes apart at the seams, he is confronted by persistent rumblings from Hillary Clinton's inner-circle that if Abedin wants anything to do with Clinton's already-certain 2016 presidential bid, she needs to distance herself from her husband's career, and maybe leave him entirely. At this point, Abedin makes it a point to no longer campaign with her husband or appear in any ads.
In a semi-confessional scene, Weiner admits, "Politicians are wired to need attention," which makes it "hard to have normal relationships." When a pollster breaks it to Weiner that he is virtually zero chance of winning the election and that the only metric of success available to him is coasting to a dignified defeat that could possibly lead to a reboot of political career down the road, Weiner literally bangs his head against his desk, but insists on continuing to campaign all the way to the end.
On election day, Abedin walks Weiner and their son in his stroller to the front of their apartment building, where the husband makes a last-ditch pitch to his wife. He tells her that it was his dream to run for mayor, begging her to join him as any traditional political spouse would, and cast their ballots together on Election Day. Abedin demurs, having decided that she's damned if she does and damned if she doesn't. She also seems to realize that her ceiling for political success has long-eclipsed her husband's.
When Bill de Blasio — a previously obscure local politician who essentially ran on Weiner's same populist platform and enjoyed the votes of most of Weiner's former supporters — is sworn in as mayor, the cruelest reveal is the man swearing him in: former President Bill Clinton.
This ties into an anecdote relayed early in the film by a Weiner campaign volunteer, who says his mother was aghast at the idea of him volunteering for such a disreputable man who shares dick pics to consenting adults who he has never met. The volunteer says he asked his mother, "What about Bill Clinton?," to which he says his mother replied, "No, Bill's different."
She's right, but not in the way she probably thought.
Bill Clinton is different from Weiner. Unlike Clinton, there have been no allegations that Weiner ever assaulted or sexually harassed anyone or even touched any of his fantasy sexual partners. And Weiner certainly didn't seduce an intern, have his way with her, and use the power of his office to destroy her reputation afterward. (There's a strange symmetry to the fact that Monica Lewinsky and Huma Abedin were both White House interns at the same time in 1996, although obviously assigned to different Clintons.)
But one of these men is a hero to the voters and members of his party and the other is an embarrassment. And that's when you realize there's nothing fair about the way political horse-races and the media shape the public's perceptions of individuals. The narrative happens, and you have to live with it.
It's easy to laugh at Weiner, and he knows it. His desperate desire for power and popularity make him a pathetic figure, but in the warts-and-all style of this documentary, his cluelessness is the most human thing about him.
In this sense, the film lays bare how our elected "leaders" are all ultimately small and covetous pretenders vying for hollow thrones. It's often been said that electoral politics doesn't attract "good" people because the media's gaze is so relentless. I'd argue that the reason so many elected officials are sociopathic leeches is because most of us would look at the relentless social climbing, insincere back-patting, and non-stop grandstanding about "values" required by constant campaigning (both as an incumbent and a challenger) as a kind of pointless torture few of us would willfully sign up for.
But to some people — like Weiner and Abedin — this is "life," or at least the best life they hope for.