In Weiner, the rise and fall (and rise and fall again) of former congressman turned mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner is brought into sharp, often painful focus. Directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg were invited to document Weiner's big political comeback, but had the great luck to capture the campaign's swift implosion instead. The result is a briskly paced, brilliantly executed and often sad film about wasted potential and America's weird political landscape in the digital era.
I remember back in 2011 when that first errant selfie surfaced on Twitter of "someone's" bulge in gray underpants. In those first few days, Weiner went on television to say, "We think we may have been hacked." Of course he was lying, but lots of men get a kick out of showing off their penis. Put all the penis pictures in the world on a single reel and the movie would reach the moon and back. (Side review: Boring and repetitive, too many rods, one star.) If Weiner had sent that picture to his wife instead, it would have been almost romantic.
The film begins with clips of Weiner's explosive rants at a Congress that would deny health care to 9/11 workers, and it's an uncommon and exhilarating sight. Pre-selfie, Weiner was on track to become a different kind of politician, with the kind of gruff, no-nonsense delivery people seem to admire in someone like Trump, but fueled by liberal intelligence and values.
The crew began filming Weiner two years after he left the House, at the start of a mayoral campaign that he seemed on course to win, handedly. He asked the voters for "a second chance" after the selfie scandal and the Apology Tour worked: New Yorkers were eager to forgive a candidate who so passionately championed a thriving middle class.
After the first controversy, Weiner betrayed what made him a distinct politician when he retreated to traditional pandering. Most damningly, he agreed a People Magazine cover story about a reformed man and his newly restored, picture-perfect family. This is what we would remember when a fresh crop of internet philandering surfaced. It was the timeline that had us most upset. Why would he do it again, after he promised the world he wouldn't, under such close scrutiny, and with so much at stake? It started to seem like maybe there was something wrong with him.
Which brings us back to the film's most provocative focal point: His wife, Huma Abedin, a political staffer for Hillary Clinton who spends much of the film standing shattered on the sidelines. The struggle is real, and her shyness and vulnerability offer a steady reminder that political theater produces real-life victims.
This country will give you a second chance, but not a third, and we know from history that Weiner's campaign never recovered from this second wave. In fact, we come into this picture knowing the whole story. That it succeeds as a gripping narrative anyway speaks to the talent of the filmmakers and their humanization of a complicated, often charismatic figure. For example, in a town hall meeting, the crowd boos Weiner and tells him to drop out of the race, but watch how in the span of one impassioned retort about his commitment to the issues and the sanctity of democracy, he's able to sway a large part of the audience back in his favor. People who are still mad about the betrayal are quick to paint Weiner as an unrepentant narcissist, but who ever heard of a humble politician? If he'd had another year to campaign, who knows how the race would have ended.
Weiner opens at the Roxy Fri., June 24.