Two years after he was forced to resign from Congress following a sexting scandal, politician Anthony Weiner attempted to revive his career by throwing his hat into the New York City mayoral race. Weiner made the bold choice of inviting a film crew to document what he hopes will be his redemption, and it all seemed to be going swimmingly until… oops, he did it again.
A young woman, Sydney Leathers, revealed to the media that she’d had a long-running online sexual relationship with Weiner long after he said his transgressions had stopped. With his campaign up against it and his personal life under incredible scrutiny, Weiner made the decision to let filmmakers Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg continue to shoot. The result is never less that fascinating.
Weiner plays out like a Greek tragedy – a story of a hero (in the Classical sense of the word) brought down by a fatal, inescapable internal flaw. Make no mistake, Anthony Weiner is an incredible politician, and it’s easy to see his career arc taking him to the White House, if you excise all the horrible things he’s done. He’s passionate, driven, intelligent, articulate, charismatic… and he has no apprehension of the kind of damage he’s doing to the people around him, not just by philandering, but by insisting on continuing to work in the public eye after he’s caught out.
Which brings us to Huma Abedin, Weiner’s wife. A confidante of Hillary Clinton, Abedin is a political animal just like her husband, standing by him when he admits his wrongdoing (just like her mentor did, in point of fact – the parallels to the Clintons are inescapable, and in fact Bill officiated at the Weiner-Abedin wedding). However, as the film progresses and Weiner’s campaign implodes, the camera frequently seeks out Abedin standing in the background while Weiner keeps the wheels spinning on centre stage. More than any full-blown argument or confrontation we see between the two – and there are plenty – her beaten expression when she thinks she’s not being observed is heartbreaking. It also adds complexity to the proceedings; it’s one thing to derive schadenfreude from seeing a crusader with feet of clay get hoist on his own petard, but it’s quite another to see his family get caught in the splash zone. Interestingly, Weiner and Abedin are still married.
We’re also forced to ask ourselves whether all this media muckraking was really in the public interest at all. The film never lets Weiner himself off the hook, but it does make us consider the sheer debilitating weight of the media scrutiny he and his family were under, and examine our assumed role as moral arbiters in the broader culture. Is there a line between the personal and the professional, the private and the public anymore? Weiner courts the media as a politician, and even invites it into his inner circle in the form of the documentary film crew, but does he then still get to demarcate certain parts of his life as off limits, or is everything up for grabs? What sins are forgivable in the the media panopticon, and what must be atoned for forever?
There are, of course, not pat answers. Weiner is a great film, taking a complex and balanced look at a scenario that could have been depicted as one long, rolling punchline. As a portrait of a flawed individual and an unblinking look at the intersection between the media and the political machine, it’s a triumph.