Do not subject yourself to the gruelingly close-up documentary Weiner if what you care most about is seeing its protagonist, the former U.S. congressman and New York City mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner, fully answer the question Dude, what the fuck is wrong with you?
He’s asked it countless times — politely and not so — over the course of the film, which chronicles his catastrophic 2013 mayoral run. And he does apologize (or at least allude to past apologies) for sending photos to women of the very body part from which he’d spent a lifetime trying to dissociate himself. He says bluntly, “I did the things” — it’s a catchphrase. But Weiner declines to do his self-plumbing in public, saving it (presumably) for his shrink and, more important, his wife, Huma Abedin — the movie’s second and equally fascinating protagonist.
During the ensuing noisy standoffs with reporters and hecklers, the camera lingers on Abedin. From her mentor, Hillary Clinton, she has learned to keep her cards close to the vest. But she’s younger than Clinton and made of softer stuff. (Then again: Who isn’t?) The pressure to let those cards drop seems overwhelming. As she puts on the traditional Brave Face, we scrutinize her eyes (fixed) and body language (tight, arms crossed) for signs of cracking. What’s going on in there? We have a right to know! (Don’t we?)
Directed by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg from a structure they hammered out with Eli B. Despres, Weiner is a tabula rasa doc — one of the most provocative of its kind I’ve seen. Everyone’s bound to have a different perspective. Social conservatives will find a link between Weiner’s progressive politics and his moral lapses, perhaps even proof that Hillary and Huma (whom Hillary has called a second daughter) have a penchant for making deals with male devils. Others will find confirmation that the kind of people (especially male people) driven to run for office are inherently unscrupulous. Some women will cringe at Weiner’s treatment of his wife — both the sexts and his use of her as a campaign ambassador/crutch/prop.
What I hope is that most viewers will come away feeling nauseated by the exhibition, concluding, “Judge not …” The behind-the-scenes access in The War Room was exhilarating. In Weiner, we’re voyeurs at a grisly spectacle, a modern political tragicomedy.
What metaphor can do justice to Weiner? “Car crash” is too modest, “train wreck” too mundane. The Titanic seems most apt, given our foreknowledge of the iceberg drifting inexorably toward the central couple, who are otherwise riding semi-high. That’s what the film reminds us: Before the revelation of more photos sent after the first scandal, Weiner was ahead in the polls, while our current mayor — the opponent perhaps closest to Weiner ideologically — was near the rear. Here, we see the Anthony and Huma of The New York Times Magazine’s comeback cover story of a loving, close-knit family, too brilliant to sink into obscurity, committed to creating for themselves a second chance in a political culture that gives so few.
Kriegman once worked for Weiner, and he and Steinberg have uncanny access. This somehow confers on the candidate an aura of generosity (he has nothing to hide), while Huma’s slight wariness comes across as thoughtful self-possession rather than dodginess. The charge is made in a tabloid story that Weiner’s staff is less motivated by him than by the prospect of palling up to Huma for a job on the all-but-certain Clinton presidential campaign. But despite the threadbare office and thin staff and the impact of relentless punning Post covers, Weiner’s convictions take hold.
Let me own up to the fact that, watching the movie, I often liked the man, showboating and all. His life, he says, has been a crusade against bullies, and his righteous indignation feels genuine. His stump speech on the city’s ever-increasing inhospitality to the middle class struck me as more finely tuned than Bernie Sanders’s and more rousing than our current mayor’s. Of course, Kriegman and Steinberg don’t spend much time on ideology or history. They know what their audience is salivating for.
Was Weiner tempted to boot the filmmakers when that second scandal hit? I’d guess he was, but the temptation not to was stronger. After all, he’s a public man, so public that after resigning from Congress, he could barely conceive of a life outside the spotlight — especially with so visible a spouse. Early in Weiner, he says he’s tired of being “in a defensive crouch.” That there are postures between a defensive crouch and an offensive strut does not seem to have occurred to him. He must consider the camera a potential ally. He made me think of the way the comedian Mike Birbiglia in his film Sleepwalk With Me turns to the audience before doing something stupid and says, “Remember, you’re on my side.” Weiner thinks that Kriegman and Steinberg’s camera will help him seduce us, that the film could still turn out to be Carlos Danger Conquers the Universe.
I also suspect that the camera’s omnipresence offered temporary protection from the wrath of his wife, who’s forced to express herself via quivers and the occasional eye roll.
Even as Weiner’s campaign workers droop with disappointment and resentment and the brisk blonde spokeswoman, Barbara Morgan, is forced to herd reporters aroused to a frenzy by the smell of blood, Weiner seems more pitiable than hateful. He’s not a confident liar on the level of Donald Trump or Bill Clinton: As he ties himself up in linguistic knots, his eyes flash pain. Perhaps he is that rare thing in politics, a weasel with a conscience. At the very least, he seems to know that he will always be seen through. It takes guts to challenge Clinton or Trump. But Weiner — thin, wiry, his emotions on the surface — already looks like a man on edge, waiting for the bullies to descend and primed to explode.
The best scene in Weiner is a study in the attraction-repulsion dynamic that fuels (and ultimately destroys) so many love matches. It’s jaw-dropping. Weiner submits to an interview with Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC in which O’Donnell says, “Anthony, I think there is something wrong with you.” Weiner does not assume the crouch. “Dude,” he says, “I don’t really need your psychiatric questions.” It escalates from there, and Weiner sounds, not to put too fine a point on it, insane. Later, he’s back in his apartment with Huma, watching the interview, crowing over what he hopes she’ll see as a show of strength, a refusal to bend before the bully. More than anything, he wants her assurance that he didn’t screw up. None is forthcoming. Huma can’t even sit down. “Why are you laughing? … It’s bad.” “For me?” … “Sorry. I can’t.” And then Weiner is alone with his documentarians.
The climax is a reductio ad absurdum: The arrival in town of the 23-year-old porn actress Sydney Leathers, to whom Weiner sent the most explicit photos in his second round of sexting. Egged on by Howard Stern, she positions herself to accost the candidate on Primary Night, with a slew of photographers poised to document the momentous meeting. It’s such an ugly, gratuitous, self-serving gesture toward a man destined to lose by a wide margin that you have to root for Weiner to evade her clutches. The camera follows her … follows him … follows her … she’s closing in … Run, Anthony, run!
The papers get a juicy photo anyway. Weiner’s concession speech is dignified, but in a car, at the very last second, as he’s almost out of the public sphere, he can’t hold back. He gives photographers the finger. Poor Huma.
Poor us, too. The Weiner of Weiner is the object of such fierce collective opprobrium that even sadists primed for a dose of political torture porn will blanch. The man is a schmuck, not a war criminal — some of whom, like Henry Kissinger, are fêted by the wealthy and honored by the White House. The movie brings to mind Oscar Wilde’s definition of scandal: “gossip made tedious by morality.” I don’t know what the fuck is wrong with him, but Weiner offers a sobering view of what’s wrong with us.
*This article appears in the May 16, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.