Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Review: "Weiner"

“I hope that it’s more than a punchline kind of thing.”

This is Anthony Weiner at the end of the documentary that bears his name, speaking his hopes and predictions about the film we are watching. The former Democratic congressman and New York City mayoral candidate believes making it was still a worthwhile endeavor, and says he doesn’t regret granting directors Elsye Steinberg and Josh Kriegman almost constant access to his every move for months in 2013.

Still, he knows the film will gain attention for the same thing he did: sexting.

“Disgraced” is a word that is so synonymous with Weiner that it’s practically become a (dis)honorific title that perpetually precedes his name, like Colonel or Judge. In 2011 Weiner, who’d deservedly gained a reputation as a sharp-elbowed partisan, resigned from Congress after it was revealed he’d exchanged racy texts with women other than his wife, Huma Abedin, including a photo of his crotch bulging inside his underwear.

Humbled, he kept his head down for a couple of years, regained Huma’s trust, had an adorable son, and then launched a campaign for his long-desired post of New York mayor, with the shooting of this documentary to coincide. (Kriegman, it should be noted, previously worked for Weiner as his chief of staff.)

Then a month before the election, more sexts came out indicating he’d carried on his cyber dalliances even after the first scandal, including with a woman named Sydney Leathers, who leaked nude images of Weiner’s… um, man parts. Never had a person’s sophomorically funny surname turned so tragic.

Instantly the target of nationwide ridicule, Weiner nonetheless pressed on with his campaign, riding a rolling wave of disaster to a humiliating 5% showing in the Democratic primary for mayor (which, in NYC, is the whole enchilada). After leading in the polls, he became a national joke.

“Weiner” provides an amazing view of these events from the inside out. It’s an engrossing and invaluable artifact of how politics, the media and digital information combine and collide in an age unbound by limits on our curiosity.

Weiner comes across as a deeply flawed man who nonetheless has prodigious gifts. He’s a natural politician and extrovert who lights up around other people. In lonelier settings, he stoops and seems to fold in on himself, constantly checking his smartphone, even while talking to people standing nearby. Clearly, he cannot unplug.

Huma, a well-known figure herself as a close advisor and friend to Hillary Clinton, is a strong and sympathetic figure. Used to being a background player, she’s uncomfortable with the spotlight. She clearly loves this man, but the hurt in her eyes with each new revelation, which reveals the extent of the lies he told, is palpable.

We share the room with the pair when the images of his pixelated parts are first broadcast on TV, and we have no doubt Huma is seeing them for the first time.

It’s important to note that even as we gain a full measure of Weiner’s long rap sheet of moral and marital failings, here is a man who never actually touched or even met the women with whom he exchanged prurient texts and photos. He’s never groped anyone or been accused of sexual harassment. He did something juvenile and gross that millions of people have done and then lied about it.

Compared to Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, Weiner’s treatment of women practically qualifies him for sainthood.

“Weiner” contains many seminal moments we shan’t soon forget. Probably the most memorable is him literally running through a McDonald’s to avoid Leathers, who had staked herself out in front of his campaign headquarters, so he can give his concession speech. (For some odd reason, his staffers gave her the code name “Pineapple.”)

But I think it’s the quieter moments that will have the most lasting power. In a contemporaneous interview, Weiner muses on how the superficial, transactional nature of the political relationships he’d fostered for so long easily translates to the anonymous give-and-take of text messages and photos. For all his obvious self-confidence, Weiner is a man who requires almost constant validation.

In one seemingly innocuous scene, he rides a bicycle through the midtown rush on the way to announce his candidacy for mayor. A woman pedestrian engages him in a stoplight conversation, wondering about the cameras following him.

“Are you somebody I’m supposed to know?” she asks.

“He’s Anthony Weiner,” a passing man gruffly states. Weiner pedals furiously away, as if he could flee from himself.

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