You’ve read the headlines and seen the—gulp—pictures. So. Many. Pictures. And now, riding a tidal wave of spin, from the left and right, as it were, the documentary Weiner has been thrust upon us. It’s perhaps the most anticipated film of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, an appropriately titled curio chronicling Democrat Anthony Weiner’s disastrous 2013 mayoral campaign. The receipts are the stuff of legend: sexting, crotch shots, and the fabulous screen name “Carlos Danger.” But this 90-minute documentary by Josh Kriegman (Weiner’s former chief of staff) and Elyse Steinberg promised to take us behind the curtain, providing an all-access look at what happened behind the scenes of this colossal train wreck.
It’s Hillary Clinton’s connection to the doc that has, of course, given it an extra layer of intrigue.
Weiner’s wife is Huma Abedin, Clinton’s longtime adviser and confidant; a woman so close to the former secretary of state—and current presidential candidate—that Clinton once referred to her as her “second daughter.” And prior to Weiner’s Park City premiere, a flurry of reports surfaced claiming that Weiner and Abedin weren’t allowed to screen it (not true, according to sources connected with the filmmakers), and that the filmmakers allegedly trimmed scenes that were unflattering to Team Clinton.“Multiple parties who viewed early cuts of the documentary say Clinton’s team is seen trying to pressure Abedin to immediately cut ties with Weiner, fearing the scandal will hurt the secretary of state’s bid for the White House,” reported The Hollywood Reporter.
While the film contains precious few direct references to Hillary Clinton, there are some Clinton-related sequences in the latter part of the film that may catch GOP spin doctors’ eyes.When the wheels begin to fall off of Weiner’s 2013 mayoral campaign in the wake of yet another sexting scandal (full frontal this time, ugh), Abedin is captured—through a series of surreptitious phone calls—taking orders from Hillary Clinton’s right-hand man (and ex-deputy assistant secretary of state), Philippe Reines.
In one scene, shortly after the scandal’s hit the news, Weiner and Abedin are huddled together in their makeshift campaign office. Weiner is adamant that Abedin join him on the campaign trail, but she resists, claiming she has a phone call with “Philippe” that she has to take.“Act like a normal campaign candidate’s wife,” Weiner insists. “You don’t know anything,” mutters Abedin, before rolling her eyes off-camera.
In another, Abedin refuses to join Weiner and their young son—who is grossly used as a prop, crying when the cameras flash in his face—as he casts his vote on the doomed Election Day, telling him simply, “Philippe said don’t.”
Whether or not the Clinton footage-trimming conspiracy holds water, the documentary is a thoroughly engrossing tale of one of New York City’s great political farces—in other words, the very thing Ted Cruz was referring to when he criticized “New York values.” It is a tale of an idiot, full of scandal and intrigue, signifying the sorry state of American politics.
Weiner opens with a fitting quote from the late, great Marshall McLuhan: “The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers.” This is doubly true for Weiner, the Brooklyn-born politician whose legacy may very well be that unfortunate crotch shot (Kriegman and Steinberg’s film could very well be retitled The Battle of the Bulge).
“I guess the punch line is true about me,” says Weiner during the opening scenes. “I did the things. But I did a lot of other things, too.”
He’s not wrong.
Weiner was, at one point, on the path to political greatness. A a member of Congress representing New York’s 9th District, he became a Democratic star in 2010 after lashing out against Republicans for opposing the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act—a bill providing funds for the health care of 9/11 first responders that finally passed in December 2015. Video of Weiner’s passionate speech went viral, elevating the already popular politician who, at 27, had become the youngest City Council member in Big Apple history. On top of that, he was married to Abedin, who, thanks to her Clinton connections, possessed plenty of political clout. Bill Clinton even officiated their wedding ceremony (in a poetic moment, he’d later officiate Bill de Blasio’s swearing-in as mayor of New York City).
It all came crashing down in 2011, when it was revealed that Weiner had been sexting and exchanging NSFW photos with a gaggle of women online. Adding insult to injury, Weiner lied about it to the public for weeks—and to his poor wife. “I lied to her, too,” Weiner admits in the film.
It would not be the first time.
The filmmakers of Weiner really lucked out here, tagging along for one of the most spectacular political campaign implosions in recent memory. At one point, while capturing a very intimate and intense post-scandal moment between Weiner and Abedin, Kriegman asks, “Why are you letting me film this?” The answer, at least according to the film, is that Weiner is a relentless narcissist; a man who’s never met a camera he didn’t like. And it’s this desire to be liked—by the media, by the filmmakers, by his constituents, by his bevy of sexting partners—that seems to drive Weiner, both politically and personally. He admits as much.
And there are many crazy moments in Weiner. The wackiest is undoubtedly a sequence when “Pineapple”—the Weiner campaign’s code name for his sexting partner turned porn star Sydney Leathers—shows up at Weiner’s concession speech/shindig on Election Day.
“I’m not going to face the indignity of being accosted by that woman,” Abedin tells Weiner behind closed doors.
So Weiner’s campaign adviser devises a plan for the couple to cut through a McDonald’s into the venue as Leathers—cameras in tow—scampers after them.
While Leathers is undoubtedly painted as the film’s outright villain, it’s Abedin who plays the role of tragic hero, braving each and every outrageous blow—and worrying about the media fallout every step of the way. The film often cuts to her during the chaos to capture the look of shock on her face, tears welling in her eyes as her husband’s political future comes crashing down.
The morning after Scandal No. 2 hits, Abedin is captured standing in her kitchen. It’s one of the only times in the film that she speaks directly to the camera. As she makes her morning coffee and takes her vitamins, Kriegman asks her how she’s faring.
“It’s like living a nightmare,” she says, flashing a pained smile.
Throughout Weiner, viewers will ask themselves why this brilliant, beautiful, and calculating woman has chosen to keep living this nightmare.The question remains unanswered.