“Why have you let me film this?” filmmaker Josh Kriegman asks his subject, disgraced congressman Anthony Weiner, as the cameras roll on him at home with his wife, top Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin, the morning after Weiner lost the 2013 New York City Democratic mayoral primary with just 4.9 percent of the vote. It’s an excellent question, because the mere fact that the Sundance documentary Weiner exists at all is enough to make your head spin.
Kriegman and his co-director, Elyse Steinberg, started out making what they thought would be the ultimate comeback story: the politician known best for having tweeted pictures of his junk, now making a surprisingly plausible bid for mayor. (The film, which comes out in theaters May 20 and will then go to Showtime, does a great job of showing why people responded to Weiner’s passion, and how at one point it looked like he would win.) What they couldn’t have anticipated was that a second sexting scandal would break out during the campaign, and they would be in the room to capture the meltdown. Kriegman was once Weiner’s chief of staff, which explains how these first-time directors got such insane access at the beginning, and their motives seem noble: to show what it’s like to be actual people trying to do public service while being the butt of jokes in a 24-hour news cycle. Why Weiner let them stick around as the ship went down is between him and his psychologist. Whatever the case, it’s an amazing gift to us.
Ironically, the coverage of this movie has been as much of a political snow job as the events it portrayed. Prior to its premiere at Sundance this week, speculation ran rampant among media outlets that hadn’t seen it that its footage of Abedin would damage Clinton’s presidential bid. (It won’t.) Kriegman and Steinberg also have repeatedly had to refute claims that they trimmed out parts where the Clinton camp supposedly pressures Abedin to leave her husband. (They didn’t — the camp or the directors.) What’s onscreen is actually far more interesting than the speculation: a baffling and humanizing look at a man without impulse control, driven into public life, and public humiliation, by hubris and narcissism, and his endlessly fascinating marriage to a woman who, against all logic, puts up with his shit. Here are 17 of the most fascinating moments.
- The perfect opening line, spoken by Weiner, alone on camera: “Shiiiiitttttt.” Followed by, “This is the worst. I’m doing a documentary of my scandal.” And, “The punch line of me is true. I did those things, and I did a lot of other things.”
- Weiner’s admission that the lies began at home. How much did Weiner tell Abedin during the first sexting scandal, when he was telling the press that he didn’t know who had tweeted that picture of his junk and that he couldn’t recognize his own underwear? “Do you mean, ‘Told her the truth,’ or ‘Told her something was going down’?” he clarifies before answering that it wasn’t like he was confessing to Abedin and deceiving the press. “I lied to her,” he says. “The primary person I was trying to protect was Huma.”
- One of many examples of Weiner’s sense of humor: An excited child fan tells him he’s going to check out his Wikipedia; Weiner laughs and tells him, “I’m going to encourage you not to, actually.”
- Weiner’s claim that he ran for mayor for Abedin, so she could become a powerful politician’s wife: “She was very eager to get back to the life I took from her.” It’s a compelling idea, especially as we watch him throw himself into the line of fire again and again. For example, when his press secretary tells him she turned down an interview request from vitriolic New York Post columnist Andrea Peyser, Weiner asks, “Why? Let her get it out of her system,” and then calls her, gets yelled at, and has to apologize for “regrettable things that I’m going to continue apologizing for.” As soon as he hangs up, he’s on another call, this time with a reporter who begins, “So your brother said your father never hugged you …”
- The moment, with Abedin present, when Weiner finds out that there’s breaking news about him having sent additional, more explicit sexts after he resigned from Congress — a revelation that also means he lied about when the sexting stopped and how many women he’d been in contact with. “FUUUUUCCCKK. Fuck me,” he says, before asking staffers — but not Kriegman — to go on the other side of the door. “Do you know the timing of this?” he asks Abedin, who doesn’t seem surprised. She responds, “It’s when you and I were talking about getting separated.”
- Abedin’s body language, all the time. The crossed-arm look of death. The eye-roll. She’s hilarious.
- Weiner’s explanation of why he couldn’t stop texting strange women: “It was almost like I was playing a video game,” he says. “We were connecting on such a superficial level” — that it didn’t feel real. Later, he adds, “I think politicians are probably wired in some way that needs attention. It is hard to have normal relationships.”
- The meeting at Weiner’s home where frustrated campaign members are invited to vent at their boss for having kept them in the dark, making them look like fools, and basically having them sign up for what is now a lost cause. It’s during that meeting that Abedin advises their visibly harried press secretary, Barbara Morgan, to consider the “optics” of her exit from the building. “I assume those photographers are still outside. So, you will look happy?” Abedin requests. Weiner ends the meeting by personally apologizing to the staffers. “There’s a lot of intensity, and I know I brought it onto you.
- The scene when Abedin watches Weiner grinning and laughing while watching a clip of himself imploding on Lawrence O’Donnell’s show — he’d snarled back in cringeworthy fashion when the MSNBC anchor asked him, “What’s wrong with you?” and clearly thinks he’s emerged the winner. Abedin rubs her head as if experiencing a migraine, then asks what we all want to know: “Why are you laughing? This is crazy. No, no, no.” He asks her if it’s bad, sounding like he actually doesn’t know. “It’s bad,” she says, only to watch him crow at his performance again. “Sorry, I can’t,” she says, and leaves the room.
- Footage of him practicing different inflections of the line, “… and for that, I am profoundly sorry.”
- The appearance he makes at a community meeting in City Island, a part of the city he has no hope of winning, where he’s immediately set upon by an angry man who asks why he’s running at all when everyone else is more qualified to be mayor than he is. “Do you think this was easy for me to come here?” Weiner asks, and in an impassioned and, it seems, truthful manner, explains that he’s not going to stop fighting for issues he cares about even though he knows he’s lost. As he gets back into the car, he’s high on adrenaline. “I’m done, I’m off my fucking heels,” he says. “That posture of sitting backward and letting people punch you, I’m done with it.”
- When Kriegman asks Weiner if he thinks Abedin is attracted to his loud, impulsive, self-destructive side: “I think she might like me in spite of it,” he says.
- The scene when Abedin refuses to appear in one of Weiner’s final campaign ads. (She’s already refused to appear at campaign stops because she doesn’t have enough prep on his policy positions, and will later refuse to go with him to the polls on Election Day, on the advice of Clinton adviser Philippe Reines, whom she’s constantly calling for advice.) “Do I look like I’m camera-ready?” she asks, eating pizza. “I just think it’s a huge risk.” We watch as he films the spot, often looking her way, as if to soften her up so she’ll join him. When it’s over, Weiner tells her, “Honey, leave a few minutes after me. Someone might think you’re married to me.”
- Abedin’s amazing ability to eat pizza while never smudging her perfect red lipstick. According to someone familiar with the film, she eats pizza all the time — like a slice a day.
- The moment on Election Day when a senior staffer tells Weiner that “Pineapple,” their code name for Sydney Leathers, the then-23-year-old he’d sexted with (using the name Carlos Danger), has shown up in front of the campaign office. The staffer tries to give Weiner the “tick-tock” of his plan, but Weiner says he’ll just avoid the office, and that if he needs to go there, they can rally the supporters standing outside with signs to “surround her and chastise the shit out of her — but don’t touch her.” The staffer marches off to take care of the situation. “It’s my job to make sure she fucking fails at life today,” he says.
- The panicked moment when Weiner is about to give his concession speech and finds out that Pineapple is inside the party. “I’m not going to face the indignity of being accosted by this woman,” says Abedin, as staffers work out a secret entrance route through the McDonald’s next door. “We’re executing the McDonald’s plan,” they announce into walkie-talkies.
- What may be Weiner’s only true act of self-sacrifice: As they pull up outside the McDonald’s and turn off the lights in the car to prepare to run through a McDonald’s, followed hot on their heels by the woman who’s stalking him after he sexted her, and he looks over at Abedin’s face, filled with dread, and seems to realize how insane and pointless this all is. “Huma, don’t come. Don’t come,” he tells her, takes a deep breath, and goes it alone.