Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s Weiner was one of the must-sees at New Directors/New Films earlier this year. The documentary chronicles the inspiring comeback and catastrophic implosion of Anthony Weiner’s 2013 bid to become mayor of New York City. If you remember that fiasco and the painful death spiral that ensued, you can imagine how uncomfortable Weiner is to watch.
We’ll have an actual review of Weiner later, but I did want to share a few preliminary thoughts on the movie since it may be one of the best documentaries on American politics in recent memory.
[A version of this article originally ran with our coverage of New Directors/New Films 2016. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical release of the film.]
Weiner is cringe comedy at its most painful, with so much said in clenched jaws, nervous posture, and sad eyes. What’s most fascinating is how, at least for me, the initial schedenfreude turned into empathy. I felt bad for Weiner, sure, but more so for and his wife, Huma Abedin, who suffers the failed campaign mostly in silence. Huma’s appearances are brief but momentous. When she occasionally looks at the camera and emotes, I’m reminded of Jim from The Office or Buster Keaton; when the camera catches her in a candid moment, I’m reminded of seeing distressed strangers suffering through some private turmoil on the subway.
While watching Weiner, I kept thinking about Marshall Curry’s 2005 documentary Street Fight, which covered Cory Booker’s run for mayor of Newark. Booker remains a rising star in the Democratic Party (though he seemed to burn brighter as a mayor than he currently does as a US senator), and Street Fight is all about his high-minded, aspirational campaign which was characterized by an inexhaustible surfeit of dignity. Weiner, on the other hand, is all about exponentially expanding indignity, both on the part of the candidate and also on the part of a media obsessed with salaciousness, moral outrage, and sanctimony.
The early buzz over Weiner is that the film’s release could have an impact on the general election. Huma is a close confidante of Hillary Clinton and currently serves as vice chairwoman of Clinton’s presidential campaign. I don’t think this will have much sway on the primaries or the big vote in November, but it may help people reflect on what matters in politics. With so much focus on personality and personal lives, the focus on policy gets lost.
In other words, Dick Pics > The Middle Class.
As we watch Weiner struggle to get his message out on the campaign trail, all anyone can talk about are his personal indiscretions and how they affect perceptions of trustworthiness. Some express moral outrage, and use it as an excuse for the worst kind of bullying. How much of this is rooted in legitimate concern for New York City politics, and how much of it is just a love of political theater?
I developed a strange admiration for Weiner as the documentary progressed. Part of that is how we begin to feel bad for a person when they’ve been publicly humiliated, but Weiner is also a fighter. When I first heard about him several years back, it was because of his passion as a Congressman when advocating for 9/11 first responders. The first sexual disgrace would come a year later, but that fighting spirit carried on in his comeback/mayoral bid, though he became a total palooka for the public. Even with everything collapsing, he continued into the fray, taking punch after punch after punch, and yet, against all good judgement, he decided to stand and fight rather than fall. Is it odd to admire the punching bag and the punch-drunk?
The big question is if Weiner believed he could salvage his comeback or if it was just the weight of expectation and obligation that kept him going. Most likely both. Maybe it was also a kind of public flogging that he secretly agreed with. It’s weird to admire that, but people are strange and complicated, and sometimes they run for office.
Whether or not I’d vote for them is a different matter entirely.