Josh Kriegman and Else Steinberg’s documentary about disgraced congressman Anthony Weiner’s abortive 2013 run in the New York Democratic mayoral primary is like watching a train wreck in slow motion, though as edited by Eli Despres, the film actually moves quite briskly. As hard as the makers might try to prod Weiner into self-examination, the result isn’t really self-revelatory; he still seems incapable of truly coming to grips with his own destructive character flaws. As a result, “Weiner” doesn’t possess the force of tragedy—at least as far as its nominal subject is concerned. His wife Huma Abedia, however, is another matter. Caught up inextricably in her husband’s downfall, she suffers not only personally but professionally, the collateral damage of his malfeasance.
Anthony Weiner was an up-and-coming Democratic star in the House of Representatives, taking on Republicans with uncommon passion on multiple issues and bringing his brand of fiery partisanship to television talk shows. Articulate and often funny, he skewered opponents with surgical precision until 2011, when his habit of texting highly inappropriate material—including photos that inevitably invited jokes about his surname—became public. After a brief attempt to dodge the accusations, Weiner resigned, and Huma—a close aide to Hillary Clinton—was forced to put up a brave front beside him.
Weiner, however, still had political ambitions, and he decided to enter the Democratic primary to choose a candidate for the office Michael Bloomberg was about to lay down. Initially he was quite successful, pleading for a second chance to do good work and finding solid support: at one point polls actually showed him leading the field of candidates, proving many voters’ willingness to forgive, if not forget. Unfortunately, in the middle of the campaign it was revealed that he had continued the practices that had gotten him into trouble before: a Las Vegas woman named Sidney Leathers came forward to reveal their online relationship, and Weiner’s chances collapsed. When election day rolled around, he came in last in a field of six, with less than 5% of the vote.
Kriegman (who also served as cameraman) and Steinberg were given almost unrestricted access to Weiner and his campaign, and supplement their fly-on-the-wall footage with archival material, news reports, and excerpts of a later interview with Weiner in which he provides a sort of postmortem but nonetheless shies away from any serious introspection. He comes across as a man desperate to redeem himself but unwilling to come to terms with his personal failings as part of the process of rehabilitation, constantly looking for ways around problems rather than confronting them honestly. To be honest, Leathers comes off just as badly, seeming a gold-digger who wants to turn what should have been an embarrassment for her into some sort of garish career-builder: her attempts to gain press attention by confronting Weiner in a low-cut dress during his concession speech happily prove futile, and she sinks back into the obscurity she so richly deserves, just as Weiner is forced to accept permanent has-been, punch-line status—though as Donald Trump has demonstrated, the current political culture might just allow for repeated bounce-backs from what would once have been campaign-killing moments.
Those one feels sorry for as “Weiner” reaches its close are the folks who supported Weiner in his comeback bid—the dedicated campaign staffers and volunteers and especially his wife, who over and over again puts herself in the position of publicly standing by him despite what he’s done. (He shows himself quite demanding of those demonstrations of loyalty, too, bemoaning the fact that she finally demurs at appearing in a commercial with him.) Watching their young son crassly used as a pawn in the public relations of the campaign—Weiner even takes him along to the polling place—makes one cringe, too.
The energetically-paced film probes for answers about what self-destructive urges motivated Weiner, but to the end he remains opaque in his admissions, bobbing and weaving to the end. His periodic outbursts and pervasively self-deluding attitude, however, prove that voters can eventually see through the poses and reject those who are demonstrably unsuitable for public office.
One can only hope that ability will extend to offices higher than Congress and City Hall.