Directors: Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg
Weiner opens with scandal. There’s no way around it. The name Anthony Weiner is synonymous at this point with all things sad and creepy, so any attempt to circumvent this, even momentarily would ring false and disingenuous. So the film shows us images of Weiner as a political firehouse, debating and working on the Congress floor, followed in quick succession by the headlines that led to him to resign from Congress – a move those of us who witnessed it led us to believe that we’d seen the last of Congressman Weiner, or at least of his political career. The same had happened to Eliot Spitzer, John Edwards, Larry Craig, Gary Condit, Rod Blagojevich, and many more.
After a tenure working as a news show talking head, Weiner decided to get back into the world of politics. He seemed to not care about the bruises to his reputation, a reputation that was especially bad because of his unfortunate last name which served as a mnemonic device to the public at large, more so than for someone like Mark Sanford, who has successfully managed to get elected again in spite of a national scandal as well. Anthony Weiner’s name begged to be used in a myriad of jokes on late night television, by water coolers – it turned the United States people into immediate middle schoolers cracking endless jokes and puns about wieners. How could he possibly come back from that? And yet he tried. He wanted to run for mayor of New York City, and nothing could deter him. Right?
Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg were lucky to choose Anthony Weiner and his mayoral run as the subject of a documentary originally envisioned as his comeback, his resurgence to a national discourse that didn’t include joke making and derision. They could not have anticipated that in reality they would be granted front row seats to his second, and more brutal, undoing.
Given everything that has happened since 2013 it’s hard for us to think of a time when there was any chance for Weiner’s redemption – it’s especially hard in light of what has happened this year and his continued sexting, even with his young son appearing in some of the pictures. But three years ago he was presenting himself as a changed man, someone who had put his infidelity and missteps behind him. It would not last long.
I am probably in the minority here, especially if conversations with friends are any indication, but I’ve always felt some sympathy for Anthony Weiner – and this film showed me why. I actually very much respect Weiner’s principles and political passion, he is someone who is willing to fight for what he thinks is right, and never seemed to be influenced by political machinations or compromise, which makes him someone easy to root for. That aside, he is an extremely flawed man – and his inability to keep these flaws in check make him so deeply human and vulnerable that provokes empathy in me. I do not condone his behavior, I find cheating reprehensible (including the virtual kind), but I see a man who has problems he cannot seem to overcome in any way, he is so deeply affected by these bizarre urges, even his choice of sexting partners is so extreme and negligible. Why does he do this? His behavior makes it so easy to make fun of him, especially for how disingenuous he can be, but the compulsions and urges are anything but laughable.
That said, the unsung victim of Weiner’s self-sabotage is actually his wife Huma Abedin. We know her as a close friend and aid to Hillary Clinton, but in this documentary she is just a wife who is married to someone intent on ruining their life together and their marriage. She never really speaks, but her looks are heartbreaking and deeply affecting. It’s troubling to know that she didn’t want to appear in the film and that the filmmakers recorded her (allegedly) without permission, but her presence is necessary. She reminds us that every time we make fun of Weiner for his disastrous behavior, we are also making fun at the life this woman built with him, we are telling her she was a fool to ever feel anything for him but disgust or contempt. Recently online shaming and trolling has been on my mind a lot, and the books I’ve read (and reviewed on this site) have reflected that. I wonder what our role as a society is and what it should be – we too often blame the person we are attacking for bringing the behavior upon themselves. We don’t have to look into the mirror and analyze what we have wreaked. We never think of the collateral damage, in fact we often blame and rebuke them as well. This troubles me greatly. Even though I do not have a Twitter account and have never participated in any of the online shamings, I have seen them happen and sometimes even looked on with glee. I am culpable. We all are.
Should Anthony Weiner feel ashamed of himself? Yes.
But more importantly: should we?