“Why did you let us film this?” Josh Kriegman asks Anthony Weiner towards the end of Weiner, which Kriegman directed alongside Elyse Steinberg. It’s a question that a documentarian should never ask. It goes against the fly-on-the-wall ethos and is dangerously self-defeating to the filmmakers. It’s testament to the incredible scenes played out in this behind-the-scenes portrait of the implosion of Weiner’s 2013 New York mayoral campaign that the filmmakers themselves are baffled by what they’re being allowed to witness. This is a political documentary which out-satires comedies such as The Thick of It and Veep; proving that, even at the highest levels, politics can be more ludicrous and bizarre than anything mere comedians can think up.
Weiner first made his name as a firebrand congressman, a Democrat and liberal who eschewed the wishy-washy slur that usually appends to the affiliation. A bleeding heart in policies perhaps, but one who, in the cut and thrust of political debate, is not averse to bloodying his hands. At the very beginning of the documentary, footage of Congressman Weiner going for the throat of his opponents shows what a rising young star this articulate, intelligent operator was for the Democratic party. ‘Was’ because in 2011 a sexting scandal, inevitably dubbed ‘Weinergate’, effectively sunk his career as he flapped in an unseemly manner from implausible denial to tearful confession and resistance, to ultimately resignation. In both senses of the word, it looked as though he’d be lucky to come out of this with an unpaid blog slot on The Huffington Post.
In 2013, Weiner attempted to stage what would have been one of the most impressive political comebacks ever: launching himself as a Democratic candidate in the race to be the mayor of New York, which is where Kriegman and Steinberg begin their documentary. With crazy access, they initially observe the underdog getting his team together. His ace is undoubtedly his wife Huma Abedin, a savvy political operator who has assisted Hillary Clinton in her time at the State Department and is currently vice chairwoman of Clinton’s election campaign. Bill Clinton even officiated at their 2010 wedding. A powerful and much shrewder operator then her husband – Weiner admits that if he was running against her “I’d be crushed.” – it’s an abiding mystery how the marriage has survived the scandals. However, as the campaign gets off to a slow start, it’s obvious that she has some kind of maternal need for her husband to do well. “I don’t like those trousers,” she tells him in the elevator – and you know he’s going to change them.
Weiner’s campaign has an obvious energy and bite lacking from the more conventional and lacklustre campaigns of his primary opponents such as Bill de Blasio. Weiner and Abedin represent New York as cosmopolitan, diverse, both Jewish and Muslim respectively and, of course, with stacks of attitude. The staff begins to grow, the organisation picks ups a gear and a certain momentum gives the film a palpable excitement. Maybe F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong and there are second acts in American lives. And then the other shoe drops in the form of more and more explicit sexting and images. Weiner’s obstinate refusal to give the jig up becomes something that increasingly looks like mania, as staffers revolt and Huma retreats to another room like an innocent version of Lady Macbeth who nonetheless must get the smear out.
Weiner yells at opponents, interviewers and voters on the street, for all the world like Charles Foster Kane in Welles’ masterpiece. And all the time the cameras roll as faces reveal the fear and disgust of even his inner-circle, the betrayal and the crushed hope. In one remarkable scene, Weiner faces down a furiously hostile town hall meeting and for a moment we glimpse the genuine bravura quality of Weiner the politician. If only he hadn’t called himself Carlos Danger and sent inappropriate pictures to all those women. But the two are of a piece: the media-savvy manipulator and the insensitive, boneheaded attention freak. It’s a tragi-comedy, the apotheosis of which sees Weiner take his toddler Jordan to vote for daddy in the midst of a media scrum, predictably bawling. Just like Kriegman you want to yell: “What are you doing?”