The feature-length documentary Weiner follows Anthony D. Weiner’s failed 2013 New York City mayoral campaign. For those who may not recall the hubris behind that bid for local office, Weiner had been forced out of his seat as a U.S. Representative (D-NY) in 2011, after he sent a sexually explicit photo of himself to one of his female Twitter followers.
While Josh Kreigman and Elyse Steinberg’s entertaining and well-produced documentary provides some of their subject’s backstory, it elides the details. When Weiner sent that text, Huma Abedin, his wife of one year, was pregnant with their first child. In a September 2011 special election to fill his vacated 9th Congressional District seat, in a section of Brooklyn where Democrats far out numbered Republicans, a Democrat lost to a Republican for the first time in 88 years.
Kreigman and Steinberg received incredible access to the aptly named Weiner and his family, in part because Kreigman once worked for Weiner. He was his chief of staff in the Congressman’s district office. After becoming a filmmaker, Kreigman tried to convince Weiner to appear on-camera, but the defamed politician put him off for several years until he decided to run for mayor. That is when he asked his former staffer to document the campaign. In Weiner, the candidate speaks directly to camera, and is seen in his campaign offices, as well as in private moments with the mostly silent Huma. Archival footage rounds out the deftly-edited documentary.
In an interview with the filmmakers at distributor IFC’s Midtown Manhattan offices, Steinberg explains that she did not know Weiner before she agreed to partner with Kreigman on the project. “For awhile, I was like the audience,” she says. “Then I began to realize that my preconceived notions about who Anthony was did not match the reality.” Kreigman, who also shot the documentary, admits that in the end his view of Weiner was somewhat altered. “Anthony was very much the person I knew through the course of this campaign,” he says, “but there was a way in which I was surprised that he was so committed to seeing it to the end.”
The “end” was a second sexting scandal that broke a few months into the campaign when an Indiana woman described the photos and telephone calls she had been receiving from Weiner since 2011. That story, which did not lead Weiner to give up his bid for mayor, is covered in the documentary through news footage, but also in a dramatic scene in the Weiner living room. Top staff members are gathered there to talk to Weiner about damage control. Huma is there as well, warning the communications director Barbara Morgan to “watch the optics,” to disguise her obvious disappointment when she leaves the building. Apparently, press was gathered outside.
When asked about that scene, Kreigman says: “Part of what is interesting about Huma’s presence in the film is that she is much more reserved. We don’t get to know what she is thinking.” Weiner does not reveal much about Weiner either, but then again, there is little there to explore. The former politician appears as superficial and egotistical as his public persona suggests. The documentary’s whiff of regret over Weiner’s political demise is as misplaced as its subject’s oft-repeated plea in 2013 for a “second chance.”
“Our intention with the film is to take someone who has been very much reduced to a caricature,” Kreigman says, “and to do our best to capture the nuance and humanity of his personality.” Steinberg observes that Huma, too, became a stereotypical aspect of a recurring narrative. “She is also a caricature,” she says, “one of many women whose husbands did something embarrassing or wrong.”
One very long scene in the documentary attests to Huma’s discomfort with allowing their private lives to be filmed. At one point, disturbing news reaches them in the campaign office, and the couple sit wordlessly across from each other, Huma appearing far more comfortable with that silence than her husband. Since filming the campaign was not her idea, she waits for Weiner to ask Kreigman to leave the room. Finally, he does it, but not willingly. The filmmaker argues that Weiner is well-aware of his failures and his talents, as well as the superficiality of his “transactional relationships.”
“In an interview you see in the documentary, Anthony poses the question of whether he is more comfortable with these transactional relationships because of the years he spent in politics,” Kreigman says, “or if he went into politics because he wasn’t really connecting on a deeper, emotional level.” Weiner blames technology for exacerbating “the thing,” which is how he refers to his sexting habit throughout the film. “Our documentary is relevant,” Steinberg says, “because it shows how politics is driven by entertainment and spectacle, that in order to have a voice you have to be able to get attention. You see that with Trump.”
In the end, Weiner begs the question of why our society continually elevates vapid men and then treats their downfall, usually over sexual dalliances, with a collective sigh of what-might-have-been. Weiner is history, but Huma, one of Hillary Clinton’s trusted aides, is a woman to watch. In the documentary, except for an eye roll and a few exits, she remains astonishingly self-contained, the antidote to her husband’s empty eloquence. As for her loyalty to Weiner, Huma’s “optics” often suggest it is conditional.