(Produced & Directed by Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg) (2016)
Is a Great Man not also a Man? Think of the Emperor Tiberius, or John F. Kennedy. The flesh is weak, and our moral standards can’t harden when some slack should be cut.
In 2011, 7-term congressman and Democratic attack-dog Anthony Weiner (a kind of American Sam Dastyari) resigned office over salacious ‘sexting’, featuring close-up photographs of his bulging underwear, weiner prominent.
After the dust settled from that, Mr Weiner (a scrappy, combative, demonstrative Weiner) decided to run for Mayor of New York City in 2013. This documentary follows that campaign, with what seems to be full inside access.
As is apparent, much time is spent by Weiner and Weiner’s boosters, hosing down the tumescent attacks and whispers about his conduct and predilections. This gets in the way of Weiner’s attempt to rise above it and discuss policy, such as healthcare, housing in the Bronx, and so on. It’s a compassionate Weiner.
And a misunderstood one. At one point, parrying yet another Weiner attack, the mayoral candidate claims to not know what photos are out there, “manipulated and doctored.”
But he is prepared for such attacks and bravely thrusts them aside, conceding “very regrettable things,” noting that it is not acceptable for Weiner “to live in a defensive crouch anymore.”
And surprisingly, despite (okay, perhaps because of) censure over his behaviour from diverse points on the spectrum such as President Obama (headline: Obama beats Weiner) and Donald Trump (“no perverts!“) he retains a measure of strong base support, including various Women for Weiner, such as his Mom, and his long-suffering spouse, Huma Abedin, a key aide to Hillary Clinton (“I lied to her, too”). Huma’s humiliating determination to stand by her Weiner is baffling, but then, they do resemble, to an extent, that classic power couple Bill-and-Hillary.
Huma’s mantra is the equivocal “I love my city, I believe in my husband,” but she looks fearful much of the time. She is a huge asset to the campaign, though – attractive, eloquent and highly connected.
On the other hand, Weiner’s interns seem tragically dazed and dazzled. One kid with a head like a wing-nut boasts that his “mother said I can’t work for him.” Listen to Mum, Moishe!
When you’re behind in the polls and need to come back, it helps to have sufficient charm to absorb a reputation as a pole-cat. Bill Clinton got away with it, but he had heaps of charm. Weiner, unfortunately, has counter-charm. One opponent refers to him as a “glib narcissist”, which rather cuts to the chase. But it is a resilient Weiner, who forges on unbowed and doubtless unhooded, marching in a Gay Pride parade, dissing a Jew in a bakery, defiantly skirmishing with a TV interviewer who asks a simple but fundamental opening question: “What is wrong with you?” and generally running hollow between keen self-awareness and galactic delusion.
Almost as if on cue, news breaks of fresh Weiner sexts. His shattered campaign, communications and senior advisers muse over a denial strategy and conclude that that dog won’t hunt.
Weiner spins on the phone (“some challenges in our marriage”) while an appalled Huma listens. “Obviously, we’re getting deluged.” Weiner and Huma exchange, on camera, a death stare of complete understanding.
Then the cringe-worthy, humiliating presser: “Working through some issues,” “made mistakes,” “a lot of work and therapy,” and the classic “moving forward.” All overshadowed by a rampant Weiner, straining at the stitches of the “Fruit of the Loom,” in the exciting new guise “Carlos Danger.” Anyway, there’s to be no withdrawal for Weiner and Huma will stand by him, moving forward. And no introspection either – when the campaign manager gently posits some sort of addiction therapy, Weiner has a rush of blood and snaps.
While talk of a new sex tape penetrates Weinergate, we see the candidate rehearsing a defiant apologia in an empty room. He ignores an operative’s assessment “You can’t win.” He gets a terrible reception at a community meeting but flails onward (“New Yorkers don’t quit.”) His rhetorical “You know who judges me?” prompts a riposte from Jon Stewart: “er….the voters of New York?”
Finally, polling day arrives. Huma, meanwhile, is conveniently warned for duty on the endless Clinton juggernaut, and is starting to make herself scarce (she’s probably disengaged from Weiner’s big pitch to the middle class, and unimpressed by the trolling of Weiner by a ‘Sidney Leathers,’ with whom he’d been texting.) Weiner tells an aide to “circle her and chant the shit out of her.” Meanwhile, still swinging from one extreme to the other, Weiner delivers an understated and modest concession speech (“we might have come up a little short in this campaign”) and departs in a car, his middle finger erect.
We’ve seen some exotic types in American eye-view documentaries before (Brother’s Keeper, Capturing the Friedmans) but never at this high level, and never where the bubble bursts right on cue. If Weiner wanted to get maximum exposure, he picked the best way to do it: mid-way through an election and fully down on tape. The documentary itself is well shot and edited, and wisely chooses not to intrude unduly – when a train wreck unfolds, unzips, or unsheathes, before your eyes, no extraneous commentary or further exposition is required.
In the wash-up, Weiner reflects on his raison d’etre: “I don’t regret (the documentary); I want to be viewed as the full person.” Warts and all. “I was naïve.” Yes, and kind of depraved. What exactly, one wonders, does he mean by “naïve?” After defeat, Weiner does not fold his tent and ride away; he stays in the public glare as a media-head, blithely waving away the Carlos Danger episodes as a distant prank from fraternity days. Though this jaw-dropping documentary only came out this year (one can assume there might have been some exchanges of legal correspondence before Weiner’s release) in a similar eruption of good timing, Huma announced in August 2016, in its wake, that her days of Weiner were no longer rosy and a separation was in play. This no doubt because of (1) The documentary’s gloriously engorged cinematic release; (2) Friendly persuasion by the Clinton campaign (we speculate), since we’re at the pointy end of a Presidential Race and they would not welcome a Weiner in the White House, or not this one at any rate; and (probably decisively) (3) a new outbreak of ‘raunchy photos and messages’ leaping from Weiner’s various social platforms. It seems that Huma has ceased to swallow Weiner’s act, and those bulging underpants may have had their last dance.
All in all, it’s riveting stuff, an opportunity for the viewer to combine high moral dudgeon with voyeurism. The man has drive, so we expect him to rise again, and in conclusion, when you consider that NYC is now run by Bill de Blasio, perhaps New Yorkers will regret not embracing the Weiner.
[ Update: November 2016: In the shadow of the U.S. Election’s polling day on November 8, the FBI is reviewing Emailgate in the light of new material, which may, or may not, be material. The source of this new information? Weiner’s laptop!] [Further update: May 2017: Mr Weiner has been convicted on his own plea of transferring obscene material to a minor. He stated to the Court “I have a sickness, but I do not have an excuse…I apologise to everyone I have hurt.” It takes some people a long time to get wisdom, and some never get it. Hopefully this candour and belated recognition of a problem is the start of a long, redemptive journey.] [And another thing: September 2017: Mr Weiner has been sentenced to 21 months gaol, starting in November.]