Spectacularly tragic and tragically true to life, Weiner gives as uncomfortably intimate, relentlessly entertaining behind-the-scenes view of modern American politics in all its absurdity, and the monstrous media machine that devours it. Our guide is Anthony Weiner, a former U.S. Congressman famous for a litany of national news scandals, all involving obscene sexts and pictures of his penis. Yes, the stars aligned: A man named Weiner was forced to resign from his seat in Congress due to dick pics.
The puns are as ripe for the picking as apples in October, but filmmakers Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman (an ex Weiner staffer) never go for the cheap shot. Instead of slapping together a silly documentary full of obvious gags, they’ve instead crafted a riveting character study about a man who’s so charismatic, naturally funny and larger than life that even clever dick jokes pale in comparison to the gold nuggets that fly out of his big mouth in rapid succession.
As respectful as the film is of Weiner, it’s not interested in lionizing him or glossing over the royal mess he made of his legacy. The film does in fact put calamity and humiliation front and center as it gives a fly-on-the-wall account of Weiner’s epically unsuccessful 2013 bid to become mayor of New York City. His initial fall from grace is covered quickly in the film’s opening moments, and then we’re off to the (mayoral) races, where the shamed congressman builds what looks to be a winning campaign before the ghosts of his past catch up to him and bite him in the ass.
When Weiner launched his comeback campaign in May 2013, the point at which the filmmakers start rolling their cameras. he seems in good spirits, and the sexting scandal seems to be behind him. Mass media attention spans are short, after all, and if anything, the TV time he got as a result of the scandal seems to help NYC voters remember his name and face. He’s already publicly apologized for quasi-cheating on his wife, Huma Abedin, a trusted advisor of Hilary Clinton who had stood by his side and forgiven him, again, publicly. With a confident strut and a quick wit, he amasses a trusty staff, a team of volunteers and a growing group of supporters taken by his strong presence and self-deprecating sense of humor. We see him attending fundraisers, kissing babies at parades, eliciting cheers at meet-and-greets – things couldn’t be going better.
Then, disaster: Evidence that Weiner’s dick-pic addiction continued after his resignation from congress and subsequent public apology boot him and Huma straight back to scandal town, and Steinberg and Kriegman’s camera is right there to capture all of the uncomfortable staff meetings, awkward silences between scorned man and wife, and whirlwind public lambastings. What makes the political scramble to save Weiner’s public perception so fascinating is that the filmmakers have seemingly unlimited access to the ordeal, following their subject not just through the streets of New York and in his campaign offices, but at home, where he and Huma struggle to care for their toddler while attempting to maintain some image of sanity as the stench of infidelity and public humiliation hangs in the air.
The level of intimacy the film offers in the Weiner family’s time of crisis can be so intense at times that it puts some Hollywood suspense thrillers to shame. The film’s juiciest moment happens on election night: Weiner’s chances of winning are zilch, and we see him and Huma sitting dejected in the campaign offices as they prepare to drive to another location so the defeated candidate can make a thank you speech to a gathering of his supporters.
They’re suddenly given word that one of the girls Weiner sent sexts to (hilariously codenamed “Pineapple” by his security team) is waiting outside the doors of the venue, ready to confront both he and his wife on-camera. This is the kind of bonafide you-can’t-write-this-sh*t moment that makes Weiner so wildly entertaining and unexpectedly illuminating when it comes to showing the damage-control side of politics.
The film’s also consistently funny, relishing in the wackiest, most frantic moments of the campaign. At one point we see Weiner at the park on the day before the election, enjoying an afternoon with his child. Suddenly, one of his strategists walks up and gives him an update on the “Pineapple” situation, talking with the urgency of a Secret Service agent who’s just uncovered an assassination plot. The camera follows the staffer as he walks away, sipping loudly on a large Jamba Juice, confidently outlining his plan to take down the malevolent “Pineapple.” This stuff is too hilarious for words.
Weiner is a politician who’s become a walking punchline in many people’s eyes, and it’s surprisingly poignant to be able to spend time with him in his private moments both at work and at home and realize that, in reality, he’s just a dude. He’s a smart, talented, passionate guy who made some awful mistakes and is fully aware of his flaws and the mess he’s made. Whether we empathize with him or dismiss him as a complete jerk is up to us, and the fact that Steinberg and Kriegman don’t manipulate us into feeling one way or the other is a testament to their integrity. On top of all that, as we collectively squirm amid arguably the zaniest presidential election in history, the timing of Weiner’s release couldn’t be better.
Weiner is the most exhilarating political doc you'll see all year. It's fast-paced, hilarious, stranger-than-fiction entertainment.