A Political Study With No Diagnosis, But Plenty Of Access

May 19, 2016

There's a moment in Weiner, the documentary about the disgraced ex-congressman's disastrous run for mayor of New York, in which viewers may actually feel for the guy. Anthony Weiner is in a Jewish bakery when he is challenged by a yarmulke-wearing customer. The candidate reacts with a raw fury that's as politically self-destructive as his scandalous cellphone self-portraits.

Only later, when directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg revisit the incident, does it all become clear: Weiner was angered because the potential constituent had impugned the Jewish politician's marriage to "an Arab."

Weiner's spouse is, of course, Huma Abedin, known as Hillary Clinton's closest aide. Her husband's ardor to defend her and their marriage renders him briefly sympathetic. Yet in the movie, it's hard to spot anyone or anything — even smirky New York Post headlines — that does more to damage the couple's union than Weiner himself.

Why? That's the question Weiner, and Weiner, doesn't answer. Two years after he resigned from Congress, Weiner was well-positioned in a crowded 2013 primary race. Then more (and more explicit) cellphone photos and texts were revealed, some of them apparently sent after Weiner had already apologized for the ones over which he had resigned in the first place.

Eventually, in the film, Weiner finds himself ducking one of the young women with whom he corresponded. She turns out to be not a student of government but a self-promoting porn star. Given the sort of messages Weiner sent to women he'd never met, this shouldn't be much of a surprise.

"I think there is something wrong with you," MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell tells Weiner in a TV interview. But the pol just won't employ the psychiatric defense. He never says he is a sexting addict, or offers any other rationalization that might soften the distaste of voters who have struggled with some compulsion of their own.

Instead, he tries to use the exchange to show his steely resolve. He proudly shows the interview to Abedin, who by now appears utterly shell-shocked, and she simply leaves the room.

Remarkably, the filmmakers don't. In the footage Kriegman, Steinberg and editor-writer Eli B. Despres assembled into this painful portrait, the couple rarely closes the door on the crew.

Kriegman worked for Weiner in the mid-2000s and apparently still has his trust. Weiner once tells him off for being too intrusive to qualify as a "fly on the wall," but he never pulls the plug. The camera follows the candidate, Abedin and their toddler around their apartment as if the resulting film is a wedding video rather than a political funeral.

Whatever his other addictions, the film shows Weiner to be enslaved to retail politics. He walks in every parade and happily waves the flag of any group whose members are registered to vote in the five boroughs. Colombia, Israel, LGBTQ — he's there. This need to identify is, presumably, connected to his itch to expose himself in low-res photos.

Weiner never says that. The documentary's strength is that it doesn't insist on a diagnosis. "Why have you let me film this?" asks Kriegman at the end, and his former boss has no answer.

Yet the open-endedness is also a weakness, since the movie asks viewers to endure massive quantities of humiliation — especially Abedin's — without any catharsis. Weiner verges on being the cable-news-era equivalent of a carnival freak show.

That may be appropriate, given political developments since 2013. Early in the movie, a prominent New Yorker piously denounces the would-be mayor as a "pervert." That man is now the de facto Republican nominee for president of the United States.

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