Few political sex scandals have burned as bright as Anthony Weiner’s infamous sexting improprieties, wherein (among other things) the former Congressman accidentally tweeted—to thousands of followers and constituents—a picture of his engorged John Thomas, clad in the thin fabric of his grey boxer briefs. It truly was the Haley’s Comet of embarrassing political scandals. Weiner, the new documentary from Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, chronicles Anthony Weiner’s “comeback” which quickly devolved into his doomed 2013 race for the New York City mayor’s office. And when it became apparent to Kriegman and Steinberg that they were no longer documenting a political resurrection, they adapted, and from the wreckage of a political career so maimed and disfigured comes Weiner, one of the decade’s funniest and most dumbfounding films about politics and the media.
Anthony Weiner was a rockstar. He was a progressive Democrat whose particular brand of fierce rhetoric was refreshing during a time when most of the Democrats in Congress carried themselves with the comportment of a nervous jellyfish. His infamous “The Gentleman Will Sit” rant was a watershed moment for progressives. And Kriegman and Steinberg know it. The opening credits of Weiner cycle through Anthony Weiner’s career, establishing the disgraced Congressman’s credentials and, in a single fast-paced, energetic montage, show what Weiner’s promising career looked like before his fall. But Weiner isn’t about that sex scandal. It’s about the next one; just as Anthony Weiner launched his campaign for Mayor of New York, it is revealed that his texting infidelities were much more vast (and continued much longer) than originally thought.
The film’s first act plays almost as a puff piece, the kind of quasi-intellectual filler you’d see on Entertainment Tonight. But as the scandals begin to reemerge, it becomes clear that the filmmakers are no longer documenting a politician’s comeback. The cameras to which Weiner played, establishing false humility—early in the film he’s seen interacting with his son in a way that’s so unnatural it seems rehearsed—are the same cameras he must reckon with each time a new, embarrassing piece of information is revealed to the world. Weiner becomes a real-time account of the life of a political scandal, from breaking news to the eventual spin. And for all of his early political prowess, it is impressive how daft Weiner can be. Kriegman and Steingberg’s cameras roll constantly, from the in-fighting amongst his campaign staff to infamous encounters on the campaign trail. And Weiner never has the sense to step out of the camera’s focus (save for when he excuses the cameras to speak with his wife about the newest batch of humiliating photos, texts, etc). Weiner documents an unmitigated disaster, but it’s Anthony Weiner’s unwitting complicity in his own demise that makes the film so cringeworthy, daring you not to look away. In the span of ninety minutes. Weiner goes from a comeback kid narrative to a living, breathing version of the “This is Fine” meme.
Weiner exposes not just Anthony Weiner’s inadequacies, but the inadequacies of a political system and media plutocracy that makes a disgraced Congressman’s penis front page news for years on end. In the film’s best sequence, Weiner and MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell (the waxy, approximation of a newsman from a Phillip K. Dick story) trade personal barbs in what was meant to be a “news” segment. As the two battle, Kriegman and Steinberg’s camera concentrate only on a lonely Anthony Weiner sitting in a barren MSNBC satellite studio (a stunning, beautiful visual metaphor in and of itself). But for all of Weiner’s glorious schadenfreude, there’s a tragic undertone that is given just as much weight. Following Weiner’s tête-à-tête with O’Donnell, he retreats to his home-office to re-watch the segment and “score” the debate. It’s not until his wife, Huma Abedein (a truly astounding woman) appears and scolds him for engaging in such self-gratifying behavior, that the film begins to explore the personal ramifications of Anthony Weiner’s behavior. For every person featured in Weiner, Huma Abedin is the only one who doesn’t come off looking incompetent or disastrously self-serving (this includes Kriegman and Steinberg who are openly scolded by Weiner himself when their questions become a bit too intrusive to the film’s narrative, a strangely cogent critique by Weiner). If the film were called “Abedin”, it would be far less humorous and much more desolate. And Kriegman and Steinberg don’t let the audience forget that; because behind the former congressman’s infidelity, there is a Shakespearean tragedy of a woman whose vast accomplishments have been (and probably always will be) outshined by her cretinous husband and his ignominious techno-philandering.
Weiner has been compared to This is: Spinal Tap! and these comparisons aren’t far off (save for the fact that the incompetencies that plagued the band Spinal Tap were complete works of fiction, while Weiner’s disastrous campaign was somehow not an elaborate Nathan For You episode). But it’s reductive to compare Weiner to any other film. It is unlike anything before it. It’s a simplistic slice of life, bio-documentary that stumbles into masterful poignancy, relevance and humor.
More PCB docs: Amateur Night at City Hall
Craig is a writer living in north Florida with his wife and ornery dog. He writes about film and TV. He creates and publishes comic books under the label Gentleman Baby Comics. He's currently wishing his bio sounded more engaging.