Who’s up, who’s down
Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s documentary ‘Weiner’ charts the fall of a congressman who can’t keep out of the spotlight
There has surely never been a greater gift to the singular headline writers at the New York Post than Anthony Weiner, the Democratic congressman compelled to stand down in 2011 after tweeting explicit photographs – including one of his bulging underwear – to several women, none of whom was his pregnant wife. There was the day the scandal broke (‘Weiner Exposed’), his refusal to quit (‘Weiner: I’ll Stick It Out’), the president’s admonition (‘Obama Beats Weiner’) and then the inevitable resignation (‘Weiner Pulls Out’).
After the obligatory period in political purgatory – not to mention therapy – Weiner attempted to resurrect his career (the Post, gratefully: ‘Weiner’s Second Coming!’). It is this redemptive campaign that is the subject of Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s superb fly-on-the-wall documentary entitled, obviously, Weiner.
The film introduces us to the motor-mouthed Weiner on the floor of the United States Congress in 2011, fighting against a vote that will deny free health care to September 11 firefighters. He’s brash and combative, with the bird-like face and coathanger physique of a man who can never sit still. The toxic tweets abruptly end his congressional career but, after hibernation, he decides to claim his shame and blast back into public life in 2013 with a run for New York mayor. He explains that he and his wife, Huma Abedin, are tired of “living in a defensive crouch”. They want to repair his public image and, by association, their lives.
Abedin is breathtakingly beautiful. The child with whom she was pregnant during the scandal is now an adorable toddler. Abedin is not only as much an introvert as her husband is an exhibitionist, the additional twist is that she is a highly respected adviser to Hillary Clinton – herself no stranger to scorching public humiliation courtesy of a reckless husband. The women are so close that Clinton once described Abedin as the second daughter she never had.
Weiner’s motives for another stab at public life are obvious. He’s an insatiable attention-seeker, addicted to the frenetic game of snakes and ladders that is politics. He loves the thrill of the contest, and there is no voter, however hostile, he thinks he can’t win over. Early in the mayoral campaign, his communications director tells him that she declined an interview request from a New York Post reporter. Weiner raises an eyebrow at her and, seconds later, there he is on the phone to the journalist, who asks him to nominate his favourite Weiner headline.
The filmmakers are careful to show that Weiner is not merely some shallow, accident-prone boob. On the stump, he’s fantastic. For all his self-centredness, Weiner has a scrappy likeability. In one scene he’s met with jeers when he shows up at a campaign function where, after his speech, a burly New Yorker grills him over his seedy behaviour. By the end of Weiner’s passionate answer, the whole place is cheering. His chutzpah turns the room around. This is his lifeblood.
Abedin’s enabling of the campaign is crucial – as one staffer says, “If Huma can forgive Anthony, then why can’t a voter forgive Anthony?” – although her reasons for supporting him are complex. She makes her first appearance at a Women for Anthony fundraiser where she declares, “I’m doing it because I love my city and I believe in my husband … no one fights harder on behalf of people … than my husband Anthony.” Weiner then takes the microphone, but the camera stays on his wife’s face as he tells the gathering that she would make an ideal First Lady of New York City. Abedin attempts to smile, but her lips tremble and her eyes glow with immense hurt and sadness. The scenes featuring their young son make it clear that, as well as holding the marriage together for his sake, she is perhaps trying to ensure that the boy’s primary male role model isn’t a guy best known for sending women pictures of his penis. A fable – however sleazy – that ends with a father’s redemption and a lesson learned is something a mother can work with.
And yet, like her mentor Clinton, Abedin is no mouse meekly standing by her man. She proves to be strategic and canny.
To the filmmakers’ great luck – or perhaps foresight, given that Kriegman is a former Weiner staffer – part way into the campaign our protagonist is busted once again, this time using the name “Carlos Danger” to hot-talk a buxom Indiana woman by the name of Sydney Leathers. (Who could have predicted that would turn out badly?) As the brilliant Stephen Colbert drolly observes of the Carlos Danger alias, “I assume it was to avoid using a ridiculous name – like Anthony Weiner.”
Abedin learns of the development via a TV in Weiner’s office, under the glare of the documentary crew. She looks at her husband in disbelief and disgust, shakes her head, closes her eyes and furiously paces, at one moment tapping her fingers frenetically on the desk. And yet she is controlled enough, even amid that ludicrous betrayal, to say not one word on camera. Finally, after an excruciating silence while she coldly stares at Weiner, he mutters to the crew, “Can we just have the room for a second?”
Later, the campaign staff, purse-lipped and shitty, are summoned to vent their anger at Weiner. As his spin doctor tearfully makes to walk out, Abedin gives her an order, again showing her preternatural capacity to remain on-message in the most trying of circumstances: “I assume photographers are still outside, so you will look happy.” Abedin refuses to do any further campaign events, and “Carlos Danger”, incredibly, has the temerity to be annoyed by this. “Honey,” he snipes after filming an ad in which she had refused to participate, “leave a few minutes after I leave … or someone might think you’re married to me.”
Even after this second scandal breaks, Weiner still thinks he’s in with a chance. He is a man with no understanding of the word “enough”. In a rare moment of self-reflection, Weiner tells the camera, “The same constitution that I have that made me do the dumb thing made it possible for me to weather the stuff without it gutting me.” No matter how poor the odds or how rough the crowd, Weiner always thinks he should do one more interview, one more event, one more meet and greet. Every New Yorker who recognises Weiner on the street and calls to him approvingly – “You’ve got some balls, man!” or “Never quit!” – validates his pathological narcissism. Even as his campaign limps to its conclusion, Weiner muses, “If I had more time, could I rebound again?”
There is really only one thing left from which a politician cannot recover, and that is becoming an object of ridicule. The difference between Weiner and Bill Clinton is that in Clinton’s case (a) his surname wasn’t Blowjob and (b) it was Monica Lewinsky who became the enduring joke, not the president. American voters are pretty forgiving. Infidelity, incompetence, sex romps, nepotism, cronyism, impeachment – politicians have survived them all. Voters love a tale of redemption, so the more important questions for the scandal-ridden politician are these: Do you have the gumption to keep claiming you’ve done nothing wrong when all evidence is to the contrary? When your lies are about to drag you under, how willing are you to grovel publicly for forgiveness? How much are you prepared to put your family through? How much public humiliation, in other words, can you stomach?
In Weiner’s case, the answer is simple. How much can you dish up?
There is so much about Anthony Weiner that appals: his raw delight at watching back his own television appearances; his private workshopping of lies that he then spouts publicly; his practising aloud – in front of a film crew – variations in emphasis of the statement “and for that, I am profoundly sorry”. And yet, as Weiner indirectly points out, his shamelessness is a political asset. The hallmarks of the modern political landscape are 24/7 scrutiny, erosion of privacy, removal of boundaries, lack of substance, absence of authenticity, normalisation of self-obsession and transformation of politics into a game of who’s up and who’s down. Taking a photo of oneself in a mirror and sharing it publicly is no longer a symptom of narcissistic personality disorder, it’s a sign of social engagement and good brand management. One of Weiner’s enemies labels him a “preening self-promoter”, but where is the sting in that these days?
In a film that tosses up one confounding question after another (Why have Weiner and Abedin granted such access? Why do they keep letting the cameras roll as it falls apart?), the least interesting is, Why does Weiner betray a magnificent wife? It’s a question so clichéd it’s barely worth contemplation. The answer is because he can. The bigger puzzle is why a woman like Abedin is still with him. Their marriage illustrates the way a personal relationship in the political sphere can become transactional if it means career survival. The filmgoer’s sympathy is certainly with Abedin and, for now, her career with the Clinton juggernaut is intact. As for her husband, based on his record and personality, as our friends at the New York Post might say, Weiner could rise again.