'Weiner' Is An Intriguingly Nuanced Look At An Easy Punch Line

May 23, 2016
Originally published on May 31, 2016 3:06 pm

Give the man credit: Congressman Anthony Weiner, having inspired countless headline puns a few years back when he was caught texting crotch shots, put himself out there when most people would've run for cover.

Apparently brimming with confidence, he allowed a film crew to document what he hoped would be his political comeback — a run for mayor of New York City — and filmmakers Josh Kriegman (who was his former aide) and Elyse Steinberg repaid his generosity by treating him utterly fairly, and capturing every inch of his trajectory from tabloid punchline to political punching-bag.

Their documentary — simply entitled Weiner — introduces us first to the Anthony Weiner his constituents thought they knew: Fiery, progressive, principled, railing a few months after 9/11 at his fellow House members' callow disregard for the first responders. He sounds like a latter day Mr. Smith gone to Washington.

Then comes the very public sexting scandal, and the equally public fall from grace, when he admitted that his was the groin in the photo, and resigned his congressional seat.

And that, figured most observers, was that. Weiner's marriage to Huma Abedin, a longtime adviser to Hillary Clinton, appeared to have survived the scandal. But the presumption in most circles was that his political career had not.

Weiner, himself, though, felt differently. "The punchline is true about me," he says. "I did the dumb thing. But I did a lot of other things too."

So he announced his candidacy for mayor of New York, and granted Kriegman and Steinberg seemingly unlimited access to his home and his campaign, which means they're there when things are going well — Weiner actually led in the polls for a while.

But they're also there when a second scandal breaks — more racy photos, sent after Weiner had supposedly learned his lesson. The cameras chronicle the humiliations visited on the candidate and his remarkably composed, resolutely loyal, but increasingly exasperated wife. Also the awkward strategy sessions with staffers suddenly tasked with damage control and with untangling who said what, to whom, and when. At which point, no one really cared much what he thought he could do to increase affordable housing in the Bronx.

Weiner sometimes deflects his own culpability on camera. At one point he argues that the media just needs a villain, and he's it. But when the filmmakers push, he also cops more than once to being responsible for the pain he's caused his family, and the disappointment he's been to his supporters.

Given all that, it is reasonable to ask — and in fact, at one point the filmmakers do ask — "why are you letting us film?" They don't get a real answer, but they do continue to get access...which means their documentary provides an insider's view of what happens on the campaign trail when questions turn unanswerable.

Also what happens to a political animal when he's so done-in by his own hubris that even his considerable rhetorical gifts — "I am profoundly sorry," he says at one point, "and for that I am profoundly sorry" — are no longer enough to redeem him.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Congressman Anthony Weiner inspired countless headline puns a few years back, when he was caught texting provocative selfies. Then he ran for mayor of New York and went from tabloid punch line to political punching bag. Remarkably, he let a film crew record it all. The result is a documentary called simply "Wiener." Here's critic Bob Mondello.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: The film introduces us first to the Anthony Weiner his constituents thought they knew - fiery, progressive, principled, railing at his fellow congressmen like a latter-day Mr. Smith gone to Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTHONY WEINER: It's Republicans wrapping their arms around Republicans rather than doing the right thing on behalf of the heroes.

MONDELLO: Then comes the very public sexting scandal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: A photo of an anonymous man's bulging underwear...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: ...Was tweeted from Congressman Weiner's account.

MONDELLO: And the equally public fall from grace.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WEINER: Today, I'm announcing my resignation from Congress.

MONDELLO: And that, figured most observers, was that. Weiner's marriage to Huma Abedin, an adviser to Hillary Clinton, appeared to have survived the scandal. But the presumption in those circles was that his political career had not. Wiener himself, though, felt differently.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WEINER")

WEINER: The punch line is true about me. I did the dumb thing. But I did a lot of other things, too.

MONDELLO: So he announced his candidacy for mayor of New York, which is when filmmakers Josh Kriegman, who was his former aide, and Elyse Steinberg entered the picture. Candidate Weiner granted them seemingly unlimited access to his home and his campaign, which means they're there when things are going well. Weiner actually led in the polls for a while.

But they're also there with a second scandal breaks - more racy photos sent after Weiner had supposedly learned his lesson. The cameras capture the humiliations visited on the candidate's remarkably composed wife, as well as the awkward strategy sessions with staffers who are suddenly tasked with damage control and with untangling who said what to whom when.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WEINER")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Can I just say multiple people, or is it just this one?

WEINER: I think you've got to - I mean, there was more than one, so I think we've got to answer the question. The problem was that a series of interviews that I did when I got in the race...

MONDELLO: ...As you as you can hear, housing in the Bronx has been pushed to a back burner. Weiner sometimes deflects on camera. At one point, he argues that the media just needs a villain, and he's it. But when the filmmakers push, he also cops more than once to being responsible for the pain he's caused his family and the disappointment he's been to his supporters.

Given all that, it is reasonable to ask - and in fact, at one point the filmmakers do ask - why are you letting us film? They don't get a real answer, but they do continue to get access, which means their documentary provides an insider's view of what happens on the campaign trail when questions turn unanswerable.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WEINER")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: What is wrong with you?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Why should we trust your judgment?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Your brother said that your father never hugged you.

MONDELLO: And what happens to a political animal when he's so done in by his own hubris that even his considerable rhetorical gifts...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WEINER")

WEINER: I am profoundly sorry. And for that, I am profoundly sorry.

MONDELLO: ...Are no longer enough to redeem him. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.