Recalling James Carville in the The War Room, the great D. A. Pennebaker documentary about Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, the New Yorker’s Benjamin Wallace-Wells writes, “The basic state of political professionals isn’t idealism that is betrayed into cynicism, and it isn’t cynicism that can be charmed into idealism. It is that each is a condition for the other.” This contradiction is also at the heart of Weiner, the new documentary about Anthony Weiner’s 2013 bid to become the mayor of New York City, an attempt at political comeback after the sexting scandal that forced his resignation from Congress in 2011. His mayoral campaign was brought down, after brief success, by the very same scandal. From Scott Renshaw at the Salt Lake City Weekly:
Like many of the best political documentaries, Weiner exposes in uncomfortable detail the sausage-making unpleasantness of American politics. In particular, this is a portrait of the art of spin, as Weiner and his wife, Huma Abedin—longtime friend and political adviser of Hillary Clinton—attempt to salvage Weiner’s campaign from the wreckage of the latest allegations. [Director Josh Kriegman] and co-director Elyse Steinberg capture Weiner's strategy of trying “to sell this as something that people already know”; as one staffer prepares to leave a grim meeting, Abedin instructs her on how to face reporters with a smile, because it’s “an optics thing.” By the time we see Weiner rehearsing an apology speech in front of empty chairs, it’s hard to avoid the realization that a political operation judges its successes by how practiced and “on message” it can present itself to the world.
This may sound like familiar territory for a political documentary, but Weiner sets itself apart with access beyond the campaign’s war room, glimpsing quite a few private moments between Weiner and Abedin. As the campaign begins to suffer the effects of scandal, the film begins to focus less on the public sphere of politics and more on its personal consequences, per Mallory Andrews at Movie Mezzanine:
Kriegman and Steinberg’s film buzzes with a behind-the-scenes West Wing vibe, as Weiner and his staff struggle to repair his image and get back to politics, but it also as sharp a film about marriage. Weiner’s scandal is neither editorially punished nor waved off by the filmmakers, who are more interested in the public and private fallout of his actions. There’s a prevailing idea in our society that marital indiscretion is an unpardonable event, and those involved should react accordingly—especially the “wronged” party. Weiner’s wife Huma takes a shocking amount of flack for staying with her husband, and the worst of her emotional turmoil comes not from her husband’s behavior but from the mass pearl-clutching over her decision to forgive. Weiner’s even-handed look at the ups and downs of the partnership at the heart of the media circus raises the film from fascinating political procedural to a surprisingly effective relationship drama.
The “mass pearl-clutching,” which tends to cast Huma more as a victim than as someone making her own decisions, even shows up in some of the critical responses to the film, but that may be explained by how deliberately the filmmakers seem to evade a stance either way—not to mention how adept both Weiner and Abedin are at concealing, in front of the camera, whatever they’re thinking. As David Edelstein puts it at Vulture:
Weiner is a tabula rasa doc — one of the most provocative of its kind I’ve seen. Everyone’s bound to have a different perspective. Social conservatives will find a link between Weiner’s progressive politics and his moral lapses, perhaps even proof that Hillary and Huma (whom Hillary has called a second daughter) have a penchant for making deals with male devils. Others will find confirmation that the kind of people (especially male people) driven to run for office are inherently unscrupulous. Some women will cringe at Weiner’s treatment of his wife — both the sexts and his use of her as a campaign ambassador/crutch/prop.What I hope is that most viewers will come away feeling nauseated by the exhibition, concluding, “Judge not …” The behind-the-scenes access in The War Room was exhilarating. In Weiner, we’re voyeurs at a grisly spectacle, a modern political tragicomedy.
If the legacy of The War Room is exposing the tension between idealism and cynicism in politics, the legacy of Weiner may be this conflict of voyeurism: the desire to condemn the media’s hostile appropriation of Weiner’s conduct as scandal only after we’ve watched a documentary that appropriates Weiner’s private life as drama. Even knowing that this perception may be colored by the film’s access to Weiner’s personal life, though, I tend to agree with the A. V. Club’s Noel Murray about its portrayal of a bloodthirsty political media:
That in the end is what makes Weiner so valuable. The film never fully gets beneath what drives this man, who has strong political opinions but mainly seems addicted to arguing and attention. But Kriegman and Steinberg effectively indict the rivals, reporters, and cable hosts who seemed almost personally affronted that Weiner stayed in the race and kept trying to talk about the issues. There were legitimate questions raised about Weiner’s trustworthiness and judgment, but for the most part, the press went after him not because they were really outraged by his personal life, but because a sex scandal is easy to understand. Weiner is about the downfall of a politician, but it’s also about the smugness and hypocrisy of those who took him down mainly because dick pics make better copy than nuanced explications of zoning laws.
The counterpoint comes from Eric Hynes, in Film Comment:
As powerful, and frankly delicious, as this is to witness, the film begins to feel like an instrument of Weiner’s comeuppance rather than a thoughtful vantage onto it. To the filmmakers’ credit, they include Weiner’s wearied protestations to this effect. When Kriegman asks one too many questions as they ride in the backseat of a car, the subject wonders what part of “fly on the wall” entails such interrogation. And in a post-campaign studio interview, a visibly uncomfortable Weiner fears this documentary will only contribute to “the entertainment industrial complex” that helped bring him down. His own obvious complicity aside, Weiner’s not wrong to raise this possibility, and the filmmakers’ unwillingness to really wrestle with an idea that’s not merely a complicating opinion, but rather the critique of what it is that we’re watching only deepens the thrust of his charge.
It’s tempting to rebut Hynes’s argument precisely on the basis of the film’s sympathy for Weiner—not only did he consent to being filmed, but the film is on his side, more or less. Yet it’s also possible to put Hynes’s question of “the purpose of complying with, and capitalizing on, such self-exposure,” in the context of the media’s attention to a certain presumptive nominee in this year’s presidential race, and there, at least for anyone likely to agree with Weiner’s politics, it might not seem like quite so comfortable a problem. From the Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday:
There’s a revealing moment early in the film, during a montage of outraged reactions to his candidacy, when Donald Trump appears in a video clip, shouting “No perverts!” at the suggestion of Weiner running for mayor. With Trump poised to dominate the rest of the year’s news cycle by any means possible, “Weiner” leaves the audience with the uneasy feeling that, when it comes to hubris, narcissism, spectacle and self-deception, we ain’t seen nothing, yet.
Anthony Weiner’s talent for self-promotion brought him to the cusp of political stardom, and though he, in the film, suggests that it may originate in the same part of his personality that prompted the behavior which brought him down, it’s also clear that his rise and fall were enabled by audiences not unlike the one watching the film. Weiner’s sincere-sounding political rhetoric and intent grasp of policy minutiae might render him a not very threatening example of politics in the Age of Twitter, but it seems impossible to say the same for that noted anti-pervert advocate whom Hornaday mentions.
The Current Debate is a weekly column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.