Congressman Anthony Weiner, for those who don’t remember or have a talent for tuning out the wavelength or bandwidth by which scandals are disseminated, represented Brooklyn and Queens for seven terms before resigning in 2011 following revelations of sexting.
Two years later, the liberal Democrat announced that he was running for mayor for New York. From that moment through the election four months later, former political consultant Josh Kriegman and producer Elyse Steinberg filmed Weiner and his campaign.
The painfully candid feature-length documentary, “Weiner,” exists thanks to the extraordinary access that Weiner and his wife, Huma Abedin, granted the filmmakers. What sets the film apart is the number of cringe-inducing moments deriving from Weiner’s bluntly candid and unfiltered behavior.
“We see many celebrity meltdowns,” Kriegman says. “In our film, you get to actually be in the room while it’s happening. What is that experience really like, beyond the puns about his name or the TV narrative?”
“Weiner,” which won the Grand Jury Prize in the documentary competition at Sundance, opens Friday, June 17 at The Loft Cinema. In addition to its obvious relevance in an election year, there’s another factor: Abedin is a longtime aide and advisor to Hilary Clinton.
The trip-wire in the campaign, and the film, is the “news” that Weiner’s sexting didn’t end in 2011 as he claimed at the time, but continued until just before his mayoral campaign. Although no actual sex ever took place, the media — from TV to the tabloids to talk radio — embarked on a feeding frenzy that focused entirely on the candidate’s credibility and morality while ignoring substantive issues.
“As he says in the film, ‘Maybe politicians are wired to need attention,’” Kriegman says. “But a lot of what he was working on and fighting for was sincere and authentic, and he really did care about policy and problems that he was trying to solve as a politician. It’s too simplistic to throw one label on him either way, which is the point of the film.”
“A significant point of the film,” Steinberg adds, “is to show how these simple questions — ‘Is it good for Hillary or bad for Hillary?’ ‘Is Anthony a good guy or a bad guy’ — [how] we’re trying to go beyond those binary questions and have a look about our politics and where we are right now.”
While Weiner is poorly served by his media interactions, he is both at his best and his worst when interacting with voters one on one. Quoted early in the documentary as saying he despises bullies, Weiner shows that he’s capable of being one himself in a contentious confrontation with an observant Jewish man in a bakery.
But even this scene is open to interpretation, for we later learn that Weiner might have been provoked by a slur about Huma’s Arab-American identity.
“Anthony has a brash, at times aggressive, in-your-face personality, and it certainly was a big part of his appeal as a successful politician in New York City,” Kriegman says. “I don’t know if that’s exactly Jewish or not, but there’s certainly an element of his character that resonated with New Yorkers in the sense that he was unafraid to mix it up on a street corner. At one point he said that’s nirvana for him, standing on a corner with a crowd of people and everyone yelling at each other about issues. Knowing him personally, I know that really was a viscerally enjoyable experience for him to engage in that way.”
Steinberg is a native New Yorker while Kriegman grew up outside of Boston and moved to the Big Apple around 10 years ago. Their stated goal is to foment a debate about the trivial, sensationalistic way that the media covers civics, but the two early-thirtysomethings seem to be unaware that this is not a recent development.
“We see this film as being about more than one person or one campaign,” Eisenberg says. “It provides a look at how our politics has become about spectacle.”
That won’t come as a shock to most readers. Kriegman offers a fresh take, however, on the public perception of the issue that ultimately defined and doomed Weiner’s campaign.
“Anthony’s sexting scandal was different than others,” he suggests, “in the sense that he was doing something that I think for a lot of people, especially older voters, was not just wrong — in the way that prostitution is obviously wrong — but actually fell into a category of deviant. It was a kind of sexual behavior that people were not familiar with.”
“Weiner” runs 96 minutes and is rated R for language and some sexual material.
Michael Fox is a film critic in San Francisco.