“Shit!” says Anthony Weiner, the most improbable of candidates for New York mayor in 2013. “This is the worst.”
Former Congressman Weiner is having a bad day. He was destined to have lots of them, having been caught for a second time in two years texting photographs of his Wiener to female fans. Filmmakers Josh Kriegman, Weiner’s former chief of staff on Capitol Hill, and co-producer Elyse Steinberg record them all, as the man who would be mayor watches his quixotic campaign crash and burn in this riveting, powerful documentary.
Before the infamous sexting scandal forced his resignation from Congress in 2011 and made him the punch line of late-night comics, Anthony Weiner was a rising liberal Democratic star who had been elected to seven terms in Congress from New York’s 9th District in Queens, never receiving less than 59 percent of the vote. His constituents loved his brash New York, in-your-face moxie and tough ideological core, his mastery of complex issues and passionate fights for decent health care, fair pay, and compensation for Sept. 11 First Responders. Plus, Weiner had married Democratic royalty in 2010. His wife Huma Abedin has long been right-hand woman to Hillary Clinton, now the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. Mrs. Clinton, who knows a few things about wayward men, has likened her poised, composed, elegant aide, and now vice chair of her presidential campaign, to a surrogate daughter.
Weiner is nominally about politics. But the film is far more. It is also a study of a political marriage, as well as a portrait of a woman struggling to maintain her dignity under almost unbearable, humiliating pressure. By all rights, Weiner should be titled Anthony and Huma.
In fact, it’s hard to stop watching Huma, whether she is playing with her young son, born only months after the initial sexting scandal erupted, distractedly taking her morning vitamins, or dialing for dollars for her husband’s mayoral primary race. Is she skeptical about her husband’s unlikely comeback bid? We never learn whether she favored her husband’s decision to invite Kriegman and Steinberg to document what Weiner clearly hoped would be an inspiring saga of political redemption. Abedin’s faith in “Anthony” and her affection for this passionate, eccentric politician seem genuine as she addresses a group of campaign volunteers early in the campaign. While conceding that her marriage to the charismatic extrovert has been challenging, she tells those assembled: “I love him, I have forgiven him, I believe in him,” she says, adding that he would be a great mayor.
For a while, the magic seems to work. Weiner, or “Anthony” as he is called, affectionately, by so many white, black, and Hispanic former constituents, rises to the top of the polls. Kriegman and Steinberg track him incessantly—in his New York apartment, at campaign headquarters, and on the campaign trail. They film him dancing a samba, riding the subway, calling out to friends and supporters from a carnival float.
Then disaster strikes. Under the unforgettable pseudonym “Carlos Danger,” he has sent out more photos and raunchy messages, long after such conduct had supposedly stopped.
From then on, Huma Abedin’s face is a study in pain. At times, watching her becomes almost unbearable. Standing in her kitchen, Kriegman asks how she’s doing. Amid plunging polls and criticism over her decision to stand by her man, Abedin calmly calls their situation a “nightmare.” But she never breaks down. As his support collapses, Clinton adviser Philippe Reines apparently urges her not to appear at campaign events. (At least she is captured on film citing such advice from a “Philippe.”) She suddenly disappears from the stumbling campaign. While he films a desperate television commercial, she eats a slice of pizza. “If you’re absolutely not going to do anything more for the campaign, then yeah, start now,” Weiner complains to her as the camera rolls. As he heads out to the polls on Election Day, she retreats to their apartment.
At times, Weiner tries to rally, pretending there is still hope for a triumphant return to politics. There is a moment or two of bravado—talk about going all “Bulworth.” At one point, he blasts MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell for asking, “What’s wrong with you?” and yells at an angry constituent at a kosher deli in a memorable confrontation. But only rarely does he lash out at Huma or the filmmakers. Once, annoyed by one of Kriegman’s rare questions, Weiner snaps back at him: Shouldn’t documentarians be one of those flies on the wall who are seen but not heard?
As the film proceeds, Weiner appears increasingly defeated. “Politicians are probably wired in some way that they need attention,” he defensively tells the filmmakers, attempting to explain away his inexplicable, self-destructive conduct. The final blow is Bill de Blasio’s victory in the mayoral contest. Bill Clinton, who officiated at Huma’s marriage to Weiner, swears in their archrival.
Abedin is a practicing Muslim who was partly raised in Saudi Arabia; Weiner, of course, is Jewish. But religion plays virtually no role in the film. Nor do disputed allegations about the Abedin family’s purported connections to groups and publications tied to the Muslim Brotherhood. The film also makes no mention of how Abedin managed to hold three different jobs in the Clinton empire simultaneously after her husband’s resignation from Congress—as a “special government employee,” or SGE, at the State Department while working at home in New York, at the William J. Clinton Foundation, and at Teneo Holdings, a global strategic-consulting firm that is tied to the Clintons and until recently, headed by a Clinton family friend.
Sculpted from over 400 hours of footage, the film instead sticks closely to its core—Weiner’s fall from political grace and the relationship between him and his wife. And in the end, it is hard not to feel compassion for both as individuals, and as a couple, seemingly bound by love, political ambition, and who knows what else. Yet in this intimate, unflinching exploration of marriage and political failure, a viewer is left with questions: Why on earth would this brash, talented politician send out such photos if he weren’t crazy? Why did Weiner and perhaps Abedin think he could run for mayor when more photos were bound to surface? And given the sorrow that permeates so many images of Abedin in this disciplined documentary, why would she stay with him? Surely his political prospects are nil.
Or perhaps not. Given the Trumpian low to which American politics have descended, Weiner’s political demise may no longer be assured. If gossip, scandal, and spectacle become the campaign order of the day, why should Anthony Weiner not have yet another shot at the brass ring? For all his mishegas, Weiner was actually a committed and successful politician. One thing seems certain, though: Even if Huma and the voters of New York were to ever forgive Weiner his sexting habits, it is unlikely that Kriegman and Steinberg will be asked to film the sequel.
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Judith Miller, Tablet Magazine’s theater critic, is the author of the memoirThe Story: A Reporter’s Journey.