With a name like Anthony Weiner, a sex scandal was bound to happen. At least that was the reaction of most Americans to the Weiner sex debacle in 2011 when New York Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner came to national attention as the center of America’s first social media sex scandal.
However, in the new Sundance documentary Weiner, by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, there is no rehashing of the past or even a condemnation of the present. The documentary, screening now in art house theaters across the nation, gives a surprisingly in-depth and sad look at how sex scandals may be entertaining to the press and the public but have a devastating impact on the real people who go through them. You may go into Weiner looking for a laugh and some political schadenfreude, but you will finish wondering why anybody ever bothers to run for political office anymore.
Weiner has an easygoing camera style that brings you right into the story from the beginning, whether you know much about politics or not. This is the biggest project by Kriegman and Steinberg to date (although Kriegman once worked on MTV’s excellent Made series), and it shows. They don’t wow you with bells and whistles but do get you right into the story, splicing clips of Weiner’s rise to fame and political power with present-day interviews of him reflecting on the documentary.
The film begins with a montage of just how powerful Anthony Weiner had become from his election to Congress in 1999 to his resignation in 2011. He blew up in the heyday of liberal-media pushback against the George W. Bush administration. Weiner, at his best, was a hot take machine, brash, funny and always pushing the Democratic (and his own) agenda. Air America radio needed someone to attack the Bush tax cuts? Anthony Weiner was there. Keith Olbermann needed a progressive voice on the Affordable Care Act? Weiner was right there on MSNBC. Weiner was also a savvy user of social media when most members of Congress were still on flip phones and Myspace.
“[Weiner] was unique in that he was very talented as a politician in the sense of his ability to use the tools of modern media. That really did set him apart,” said Kriegman, one of the film’s directors. “He became a prominent voice in the Democratic Party because he knew how to speak in a way that went viral on YouTube.”
All of this makes the sex scandal that took him down initially in 2011 all the more ironic. Weiner was busted for sending pictures of his penis to women over Twitter, a scandal that eventually led to his resignation. The Weiner documentary begins in 2013 when the former congressman is planning a political comeback by running for mayor of New York City.
Like all good documentaries, you are taken for a ride on the subject’s roller coaster of a life in unexpected and interesting ways. When Weiner starts running for mayor, he takes the jokes about his past indiscretions in stride, and you see that many voters actually want to hear what he has to say, remembering that he was a pretty effective member of Congress. In the film, his wife, Huma Abedin (the longtime personal assistant to Hillary Clinton), regularly comes up from Washington, D.C., to campaign with her husband and help him move past his former scandal. All of it is working well (he was doing well in the polls) until the other shoe drops.
Apparently, Weiner never stopped slipping into DMs despite his claims that he had cleaned up his act. Just as his campaign started, pictures and texts surfaced showing that a year after his apology and resignation, he was posing under the pseudonym “Carlos Danger” and sexting a 22-year-old woman in Indiana. The whole documentary changes at that point, and it’s apparent. As a viewer you can tell the directors thought they were going to film the story of a political comeback, and instead ended up filming the story of a brand-new scandal, happening in real time, and the impact it had on everyone.
Watching a sex scandal begin and tear apart a political campaign (and a family) from the inside is like watching an explosion in slow motion. From the way the staff has to learn how to respond to the media to the strain these new revelations put on Weiner’s marriage, you are taken aback at how a sideshow for American voters can become a harrowing experience for the people who have to live their day-to-day lives with a costly mistake. Especially Weiner’s wife, Abedin.
Abedin’s close relationship with Clinton, and the parallels between Bill Clinton’s behavior in the ’90s and what Weiner was doing, are not lost on anyone in the documentary. Hillary Clinton refers to Abedin as her “other daughter.” Bill Clinton presided at the wedding between Abedin and Weiner, and when Weiner cheated the first time, it was to Bill Clinton that he supposedly made a tearful apology. Abedin was in an untenable position, but that did not stop how she was treated by the press, something captured wonderfully in the movie.
According to the film’s producer, Steinberg: “In terms of Huma, just like Anthony, [she] was reduced to a character; so was he. In some ways, even more.”
I will admit, after seeing Abedin’s trials in Weiner, I regretted suggesting on MSNBC and CNN at the time that she was staying with her husband as some sort of Machiavellian attempt to seek political power. She is neither a scheming Cersei nor a Stepford wife. She’s a woman desperately trying to maintain her family with a man who seems incapable of being accountable.
By the time Weiner ends, you want it to be over for everyone involved. The cameras follow the former congressman as he uses his toddler son, Barry Bonds style, to protect himself from the press while he goes to the voting booth. You get the impression that Weiner gave the documentary crew such intimate access (there was only one scene where he closed the door to cameras so he and Abedin could argue) not because he wanted to be honest, but because he still thought he could win and the documentary would be his “I told you so” moment.
In the pantheon of political-campaign documentaries The War Room, Street Fight, Journeys With George and the like, Weiner may not be so much a look into campaign dynamics as it is a look at the dynamics of our modern media and the humanizing impact of sex scandals on regular people. Nevertheless, you will be glad you saw it, and ultimately sad that you remember it.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.