[This is a re-post of my Weiner review from the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. The movie opens in limited release today.]
Anthony Weiner was almost built to be a punchline based on his last name. No one is more aware of his rise and fall than Weiner, and yet directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg can’t gleam any unique perspective in their documentary Weiner, which followed the former congressman during his disastrous 2013 campaign for mayor of New York City. After spending 90 minutes with Weiner, we understand him and the media machine that devoured him just as well as before we started the movie. If anything, the documentary may serve him more than any curious moviegoer.
The film doesn’t even bother with Weiner’s upbringing, and his life basically begins as he’s shown to be a firebrand in congress, giving Democrats the fiery voice they lack. However, a scandal breaks where it turns out he was sexting explicit photos of his penis and clumsily tried to cover it up. He’s forced to resign in disgrace, and Weiner picks up two years later where he’s hoping for a second chance by running for mayor of New York City. It’s a run that begins promisingly enough as he’s shown having far more energy than his opponents, but once again everything falls into turmoil as another sexting scandal emerges.
Kriegman and Steinberg have seemingly lucked into a twist most documentarians would kill for, and yet they’re at a loss with what to do with it. After the story breaks, Weiner grows more short-tempered, his wife Huma Abedin becomes more distant, and the media can’t focus on anything outside of the scandal. Since the film never spends any pre-career time with Weiner, we never know him as a person, so his personal crisis doesn’t have any impact. Since the film spends so little time on his political positions, it’s in no position to critique the media for only focusing on Weiner’s sexting scandal rather than the substantive issues facing New Yorkers.
I suppose the film offers some kind of schadenfreude to see Weiner implode after lying again, but that’s only if you care that he lied in the first place. The directors don’t look at the history of politicians like Weiner or why Americans act so incensed when those politicians behave immorally but not illegally. The focus is firmly on Weiner, and yet it never feels like we’re not seeing more than a short-temper and a lack of ideology. As Weiner wore on, I only questioned if he even believed his political ideas or if he was just another politician who got caught. Then I realized it didn’t really matter either way.
Weiner feels like a wasted opportunity from filmmakers who were too enamored of their subject and their timing to realize a larger context. In an unintentionally sinister twist, the documentary, which recounts Weiner’s many humiliations, may ultimately prove his redemption. It can serve as a stepping-stone to show a wary public: “Look, I starred in a documentary showing how flawed I am and how transparent I can be. Trust me again.” I would say whether you trust this politician again or not is beside the point, but that would imply that Weiner has a point.