The first images of Weiner, the new documentary from Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, are those of righteous anger. A young, idealistic congressman from Brooklyn storms the podium of the House of Representatives to bring fury down on the heads of Republican politicians who would rather deny health benefits for 9/11 first responders than levy a minor tax on the richest of America. He bellows into the microphone, obstinately sniping at Republicans asking him to calm down or cede his time. He wants one thing, for everyone to vote on what they think is right. He is fighting for what he believes in.
One thing is clear: Anthony Weiner is a passionate man who stands up for his belief and his constituents. Another thing is clear: Anthony Weiner has a very short temper.
Following in the footsteps of other “happy accident” documentaries conceived to be one thing only to dramatically shift into something else in the middle of production like Lost in La Mancha or Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, Weiner was supposed to be a redemption story, a look at the man as he attempts a political comeback on the most hostile of stages, a Democratic primary for mayor of New York City. Less than three years removed from the Twitter/sexting scandal that forced him to resign from public office and retreat into family life with his wife (long-time aide and confidant of Hillary Clinton Huma Abedin) and their newborn son, the pull of the spotlight and that need to help brings him back into the spotlight, scandal be damned. In today’s climate of 24 hour “news” networks, and the suffocating ubiquity of social media, willingly putting himself back in front of the of the firing squad might make him seem delusional, or perhaps simply insane. And it’s very possible those sentiments are accurate.
As the campaign kicks off, Weiner is energized, focused on his message about rekindling the middle class of New York, a class feeling neglected after the reign of Michael Bloomberg. And he opens up a five point lead in the polls, charming New York democrats into believing the worst was behind him. Of course, anyone old enough to be interested in a documentary about a political figure knows what’s coming next, as the aftershocks of his sexting scandal have a new name: Carlos Danger. The second half of the film is a slow motion car crash, the destruction of a political campaign in agonizing, minute detail. It is here that the temper foreshadowed in the opening sequence reaches full blossom, foiling him at every step as he bails water from a rapidly sinking ship, turning routine campaign stops and media appearances into screaming matches that are just more fodder for the news cycle. It is a pitiable experience to endure, and a frustrating one, but not in the ways one might expect.
Comparisons can be made between Weiner and Asif Kapadia’s masterful Amy Winehouse documentary Amy. Both films tell the tale of a public figure’s downfall due to indefatigable personal demons, and both films set their focus on the media’s ridicule and reinforcement of these actions, creating a crushing feedback loop that saps them of their will to fight against the tide. Granted, Weiner losing his job and a mayoral race is not nearly as tragic as Winehouse losing her life (he doesn’t even lose his wife, though she shares some excellent Jim Halpert-esque sidelong glances at the camera), but Kriegman and Steinberg clearly want to mount a similar sort of case, painting Weiner as a dedicated public official with good ideas, passion and a deeply unfortunate name that matches his deeply unfortunate sexual proclivities. Like Amy, Weiner makes heavy use of media coverage to make its case, so often the camera is filming another screen, splicing in footage from The Colbert Report or Youtube videos. It makes for compelling viewing, reinforcing the cancerous nature of today’s soundbite culture, but the end result is a little different. Amy managed to make Winehouse a purely sympathetic character. Weiner? Not so much.
Now, this doesn’t mean the film was actually trying to make Anthony Weiner a purely sympathetic character. It paints him in a kinder light than pretty much anyone or anything since the first scandal began to break, but it does not shirk away from his considerable and numerous flaws. Anthony Weiner is a complex man, equal measures good and bad throughout his embattled life, and Weiner is a suitably complex portrait. The real victims are arguably those around him, his campaign staffers blindsided by more details coming to light Weiner easily could have prepped them on but chose not to, and his wife, standing by his side as the whole world brands him a cad and a deviant, her own political career in the balance simply from being pulled into his whirlpool. Anthony Weiner is treated unfairly and aggressively by a society that hypocritically judges social indiscretions with extreme zeal, but Weiner remains complicit in his downfall in the way he stubbornly refuses to keep his temper in check.
The film only really stumbles at its very end during Weiner’s final on-camera interview, a self-reflexive discussion of the documentary itself and the reason for its existence that feels a bit on the nose, like too bald a statement for why the film was made. But the 90 minutes that come before it more than make the case, providing a compelling look at the deflating pressure of the public eye. Weiner is a tragic figure in his own right, undone by the passion that made him such a fierce legislator. With the incessant coverage of his life from disgraced former Congressman to yet even more disgraced failed New York City mayoral candidate, it would be easy to assume knowledge of the whole story. Weiner shows that is not the case. Anthony Weiner is still a human being underneath it all despite what the media may want to believe. His film uncovers the man behind the scandal, a fascinating and engaging biography of the man behind the scandal, warts and all.