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

May 23, 2016
Originally published on May 24, 2016 6:28 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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