“Weiner”, Or: How a Sexually Strange Man was Sacrificed to the Public Outrage Machine

Anthony Weiner is a former congressman from New York’s 9th congressional district.  In June 2011, Weiner resigned from Congress amid a sexting scandal that was cheekily referred to as “Weinergate”.   Two years later, a pair of documentarians named Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg were granted access to film Weiner’s campaign in the 2013 New York City mayoral race.  While initially I am sure the pair were interested in a behind-the-scenes look at the logistics of running a campaign, perhaps with a taste of the phoenix rising from the ashes, what they captured was infinitely more interesting.  During the campaign, with the cameras rolling, another sexting scandal involving Anthony Weiner broke.  Kriegman and Steinberg’s fascinating film Weiner documents the resulting media circus, and manages to offer insightful commentary on the bloodthirstiness of the media, the constitution of a politician, and the effect that a man’s failings can have on his family.

By all accounts, Anthony Weiner is an insanely accomplished politician.  He won New York’s 9th District seven times, never winning less than 59% of the votes.  His tirades on Capitol Hill are well-documented, and the film establishes that Weiner was a fiery kind of poster-child for the Democrats early in his career.  He also married Huma Abedin, a top Hilary Clinton aid and burgeoning political wunderkind.   Then, of course, the sexting scandal turned him into an instant punch line.  Regardless, he and Huma felt they could apologize and bounce back.  And, frankly, the first act of Weiner is a spectacular piece of propaganda for the aspiring mayor.  He is taking names and kicking ass at rallies, debates, and parades. Bill devBlasio (who actually ended up winning), is made to look like an also-ran by comparison.

Then, another sexting scandal absolutely destroys him, and we get to watch it all.

It doesn’t take much imagination to criticize a man named, “Weiner” for getting caught sending other people pictures of his penis.  Therefore, the retribution from the press and most voters is swift.  What’s more, we get to see the frustration of everyone involved in the Weiner campaign.  Huma almost can’t stand the embarrassment, and appears resigned to her fate quite often.  Weiner himself waffles between extreme guilt over his actions, spin-doctoring, and a quixotic crusade to get the people to just listen to his message.  But the damage is done, and the Weiner campaign cannot recover.

The film also reveals Weiner’s peculiar form of narcissism, but not in a judging way.  He often googles his own name and reads editorials that feature him.  This characteristic is clearest in a sequence the morning after Weiner exploded on a televised interview.  He sits at his computer, re-watching the “debate” with a smirk on his face.  Feet away, Huma is less amused.  Anthony can’t offer any argument better than “What was I supposed to do?” and “You should watch the extended online version!  Want to?”.  Huma shrugs as if under the stone of Sisyphus, and leaves the room without a word.

As much as Weiner and his failings are the focus of this story, one can argue that it is truly about the ravenous 24-hour news cycle.  Like Asif Kapadia’s Amy, there is a flawed individual in the middle of this story, but it is also a tortured one.  Thus, I disagree with the majority of Weiner’s ideas and I believe his behavior is laughable (but certainly not criminal, and probably not even immoral).  But that is all too nuanced for the likes of Fox News and CNN.  The man named Weiner showed his penis to someone over the internet, and that guarantees that his ideas will never ever be taken seriously for as long as he will live, and every battle to be taken seriously will be met with guffaws.

In a poignant close to the film, Weiner warns the film makers that their piece of work will get swept up in the same tempest, and he may prove to be remarkably prophetic.  As this piece is published, Anthony Weiner and Huma Abedin have recently announced their separation amid the revelation of yet another sexting scandal involving Weiner.  Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg have made a truly great documentary in Weiner, one which analyzes the tortured ethos of a strange man at the hands of a rabid and unimaginative public media.  The film may even be strong enough to be remembered for reasons unrelated to Anthony Weiner’s penis.

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