Weiner (2016) dir. Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg Rated: R image: ©2016 Sundance Selects

Weiner (2016)
dir. Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg
Rated: R
image: ©2016 Sundance Selects

The one thing that’s missing from Weiner is what makes good documentaries great. The best docs are able to dig deep below the surface of their subjects and discover a sense of who the person being studied really is. That never quite happens with Weiner, the documentary about scandal-plagued former U.S. congressman Anthony Weiner’s attempts to mount a comeback by running for mayor of New York City. I left the theater not knowing the man any more intimately than when I arrived, and the film feels lesser for it. That’s not to say Weiner isn’t entertaining. At times laugh-out-loud funny, infuriating, and depressing, the movie is a fascinating look inside a political campaign’s stupendously epic meltdown.

If you aren’t familiar with the name – and how can you not be, considering what he did to torch his own quickly rising reputation – Anthony Weiner was a firebrand liberal U.S. congressman with the reputation of never backing down from a fight. His epic rant on the floor of the House, where he berated Republicans for blocking healthcare funds for 9/11 first responders because it also included a corporate tax increase to cover the cost, went viral in 2010. It served as a signal that a new Democrat was on the scene who wouldn’t try to compromise with his political adversaries, but would challenge hypocrisy in the most vociferous way possible.

I remember watching that C-SPAN clip half a decade ago and feeling almost literally fired up. Here was a guy who stood up for what was right. Here was a politician yelling and making a scene to draw attention to political injustice. I was an instant fan. So were millions of other Americans and many contacted Anthony Weiner personally to let him know about it. More than a few of those fans were attractive young women, and Weiner’s utter stupidity and hubris when interacting with these women on social media ultimately led to his downfall. That happens when you accidentally tweet a picture of your genitals to all of your followers instead of as a private message to a lone admirer.

Cut to three years later. A chastened Weiner, who dropped out of the spotlight after resigning from Congress in order to repair his fractured marriage, is ready for a triumphant return. He’s decided, with the blessing of his wife Huma Abedin, to make a run for mayor of the Big Apple, his hometown. To add visibility to his efforts, he allows a film crew to document his campaign – a choice I’m sure he now regrets. It was always going to be an uphill battle, but his campaign becomes a disaster when new accusations arise about more women Weiner contacted with sexually explicit messages, and long after he resigned in the wake of the original scandal.

As you might imagine, being on the inside of such an epic catastrophe makes for some fascinating footage. There are plenty of scenes of strategy meetings on how to deal with the new revelations that are frankly hard to watch. Without a doubt, through the entire film, the person you feel the worst for is Weiner’s wife, Huma. A long time staffer and right hand woman to Hillary Clinton, Abedin spends every moment she’s on film looking either emotionally shattered or totally pissed off. In one scene, a filmmaker asks how she’s holding up, and Abedin says something about how her life is like living in a nightmare. She’s on the verge of tears, a person trying desperately to hold it together in front of the camera. It’s clear she’ll completely break down the second she gets behind a closed door.

Why would she agree to do this, you might ask? I can only speculate, because the documentary never gets any closer to Huma Abedin than it does to her husband. The real Anthony Weiner, noteworthy since his name is the title, remains a mystery. It seems obvious that he thought it would be a great image rehabilitator to self-deprecatingly own up to past indiscretions in front of a film crew while running for a new office. Consequently, all the interviews with Weiner feel hollow. There are many scenes of him shooting advertising spots for his campaign and the documentary highlights the artificiality of them. The movie cuts between the polished finished product and behind the scenes footage taken during the taping. It’s a perfect metaphor for the way the candidate is trying to improve his public perception by allowing himself to be the subject of a documentary.

Even the scenes when Huma and Anthony are supposedly genuinely interacting with each other at home – one brief moment shows them comparing the ingredients of two different jars of spaghetti sauce, to determine which is healthier – come off as suspect. They feel about as real as the pre-produced “getting to know you” video packages of contestants on reality TV competition shows. The only thing missing here is text on the screen giving out biographical tidbits about them both.

To be fair, there are more than a few moments of riveting real-life drama in Weiner. One scene shows the candidate at a town hall meeting where he is greeted as a pariah. The first question he’s asked is how the people of New York City can trust him, considering he’s been exposed as a liar who continued his behavior even after resigning from Congress. In this moment, we see the expert politician Anthony Weiner. He gives an impassioned speech about wanting to focus on the issues that really matter to the people of New York. Here we see the firebrand qualities that made him a viral sensation when speaking from the floor of the House. In under five minutes, Weiner turns almost the entire crowd around to supporting him. It’s sheer magic. Moments like that don’t make up for the lack of depth we get from the man behind the scandal, but they do go a long way in making Weiner an engrossing portrait of political theatre.

Why it got 3.5 stars:
- Weiner is fun, entertaining, and a fascinating inside look at the collapse of a political campaign, and maybe even an entire career. You never really get to the heart of who Anthony Weiner is, though, at least I didn't. There's also a very rubbernecker-staring-at-a-car-wreck quality to it that keeps it from being truly great or insightful.

Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- Not that I need complete subjectivity from documentary filmmakers, but there's one quick moment in Weiner that plainly shows the directors' bias towards their subject. We are shown Weiner campaigning during a New York City parade, and the editing makes it look like the most exciting political event ever staged. There is boisterous, exciting music laid over top of Weiner shaking hands and receiving cheers from the crowd. Cut to another candidate in the race, eventual winner Bill de Blasio, with no music, and a lull in the action of the parade as he quietly waves to a few people. The only thing missing to telegraph their message would have been the sound effect of crickets chirping in the background. 

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