Weiner
★★★☆☆

Weiner is an insider look at the 2013 mayoral campaign waged by disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner. The film, co-directed and photographed by Josh Kriegman (who once worked for Weiner and was granted unprecedented access), is undeniably compelling despite the fact that it offers few insights and no major revelations.  A dazzling 10-minute opening montage examines Weiner's record as a combative, passionate, and potentially effective liberal politician, and the sexting scandal that led to his resignation.  After that, Kriegman and co-director Elyse Steinberg jump into real-time, quasi-cinéma vérité mode, picking up with Weiner right after he declares himself a candidate for mayor of New York.  Like Weiner, the filmmakers clearly think they could be recording the greatest political comeback story since Bill Clinton’s presidential race was captured in D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’ landmark documentary The War Room (1993). Unfortunately for Weiner, but luckily for the filmmakers, the story takes a decidedly more tragic and salacious turn, morphing into an intimate examination of the ambitious, overweening, crusader politician’s self-destruction.

After sending pictures of his genitalia to several women while serving in Congress, the ironically named Weiner seemed destined to forever be a punchline. But two years later, after multiple mea culpa interviews and public apologies, Weiner appeared to have put this harmless but embarrassing scandal behind him. Like the New York Times Magazine cover story, which depicted Weiner and his wife (Hillary Clinton protégé Huma Abedin) as happily reconciled, purged of personal demons, and ready for a second act, the documentary furnishes an open and welcoming look at their lives and their work together on his mayoral campaign.  But when it surfaces that Weiner had sent new dick-pics to several women after claiming to have turned over a new leaf, the voting public and the press are unwilling to give the reckless candidate a third chance.

Unlike The War Room, this is not an expertly crafted picture that opens our eyes to a world we’ve never seen before. Weiner has more in common with Laura Poitras’ Oscar winning Citizenfour (2014) in that it’s interesting mainly because of the level of access the filmmakers have to their subject.  We don’t really learn anything more about Anthony Weiner from this movie than we already knew if we followed this race or the way the press and late-night comedians mockingly covered the reoccurring scandal. Yet watching him go through everything with day-by-day, moment-by-moment detail is pretty riveting. And there are several fascinating scenes between Weiner and Abedin that somehow make us feel empathy and schadenfreude simultaneously.

We can understand why Weiner might have initially thought it would be a good idea to have someone he knew documenting his campaign with an up-close-and-personal, warts-and-all approach—but, like inviting a vampire into your home, once Kriegman’s camera is there, it feeds on Weiner’s exposed wounds and psychological shortcomings. The wanna-be mayor of New York is trapped in close-up shots trying his best not to show us what he’s feeling and thinking in countless humiliating situations. His savvy political operative wife is equally trapped, but she’s even more powerless to find a solution or a way out.

Kriegman is not always a silent fly-on-the-wall, like Pennebaker or Robert Drew (whose 1960s cinéma vérité masterpieces Primary and Crisis still represent the high watermark for this type of documentary). The director can’t help but ask his subject the occasional question during long silent stretches where he (and we) desperately want to know what Weiner is thinking. These exchanges often yield a funny moment, but no additional perspective ever comes across.  Anthony Weiner remains difficult to fathom—we are left scratching our heads, wondering how he could have done the things he did. Still, this is valuable material for anyone who falls too hard under the spell of a favorite candidate. Weiner may seem like an extreme case, but that’s only because the nature of his “crime” is so comically undignified. In terms of the personality that comes through in this film, he looks remarkably like most any other politician would, if you spent this kind of time with them on the campaign trail.

Directed by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg
Written by Eli B. Despres, Josh Kriegman, and Elyse Steinberg

With: Anthony Weiner, Huma Abedin, Amit Bagga, Adam S. Barta, and Sydney Leathers

Cinematography: Josh Kriegman
Editing: Eli B. Despres
Music: Jeff Beal

Runtime: 96 min
Release Date: 08 July 2016
Aspect Ratio: 1.78 : 1
Color