There is hardly a figure in modern American politics more complex than Anthony Weiner. He is simultaneously charismatic, nauseating, poised, unhinged, fearless, cowardly, sincere and utterly contrived. Who, then, would fit the silver screen better than he? Indeed, he proves politics is theater in Josh Kriegman ’03 and Elyse Steinberg’s “Weiner,” a documentary which follows the former United States Congressman during his ill-fated 2013 bid for the mayoralty of New York City.
Toward the film’s end, Weiner appropriately impersonates stand-up comedian Rodney Dangerfield for the amusement of one of his staff. Dangerfield’s oft-repeated catchphrase, “I get no respect!”, encapsulates Weiner and his various tribulations. He went from an outspoken Congressman to one disgraced by his careless use of technology to the leading candidate in the New York City mayoral race. But he quickly tumbled from this apogee back into the abyss of public ridicule, once again due to his enacting erotic fantasies with women he knew only online.
The documentary often regards its subject through a sardonic lens. Naturally, penis jokes abound. At one point, Weiner blames the media scrutiny surrounding his latest sexting scandal, in part, on the absurdity of his surname. Impossible irony permeates every scene. Laughter cascades and transmutes this man into a jester whose life story forms the perfect punchline for the late night comedian.
Weiner’s demise is wholly his own doing, but his caricature into a gag line proves unfair. All the phallic puns juxtapose solemnly with domestic scenes of Weiner; his stalwart wife, Huma Abedin; and their toddler, Jordan. His elderly mother phones voters on his behalf. The man may be a walking burlesque, but he is also a father, a son, a husband.
Fortunately, the film does not dwell in mockery. It depicts Weiner with alternating ambivalence and sympathy. Shots of his pensive face in profile populate the film, but the faces of those whose fates are bound to his are equally telling.
Huma lingers in the background, sits beside her husband, gazes on soberly. She stands front and center only once, at the press conference held after her husband’s latest sexting scandal engulfs his mayoral campaign. Reading a prewritten statement, she speaks haltingly, the artifice of the words apparent. Behold Ophelia, beleaguered, abused, conflated with her beloved’s insanities, jeered along with him.
But the film presents another suffering female. Sydney Leathers, Weiner’s cyber femme fatale, comes forward to disclose the affair as his mayoral campaign reaches its zenith. Some regard her with disgust, a distaste stoked by her reveling in the notoriety gained from her digital amour with the candidate.
This exhibitionism reaches its nadir when, on election night, Leathers declares she will confront Weiner, who, as predicted, has just lost the race. She waits in ambush outside the venue in which he will deliver his concession speech. Amidst a crowd of reporters, she stands by the door in a low-cut crimson dress, her bare back blooming with tattoos. One feels contemptuous of her here as she orchestrates a stunt for the media’s pleasure.
This news frenzy causes Huma to stay home. “I don’t want to endure the indignity of being accosted by this woman,” she says, her impotent anger palpable. So Weiner nods, and he sneaks into the venue by way of a neighboring McDonald’s. When Leathers realizes what has transpired, she runs frantically through the restaurant, patrons watching bewildered, news cameras jerking, her high heels clicking on the greasy tiles. “Are you serious?” she repeats again and again. “Why is he afraid of a 23-year-old?” she asks, her face cast down.
And so the façade crumbles. The outraged woman given to tabloid antics rends her masquerade and emerges as the spurned, the smarting, the marginal. In this moment, her searing humanity burns through the reel and blisters us, scalds our notions of the mistress and the woman and the victim.
Huma and Sydney stand in the same corner, though perhaps unknowingly.
That same night, as Weiner delivers his concession speech, his voice, usually sure and overloud, echoes high and weak. Weiner, vulnerable, seems more akin to a boxer, defeated and bruised, than the manic sex fiend or the brash politician of public perception.
“Don’t meet your heroes,” Leathers at one point cautions viewers, “because you’ll find out your heroes are human.” But heroes and villains alike are human, and the Weiner who berates Republicans about the plight of the impoverished until veins in his neck bulge fit to burst is the same Weiner who sexted at least six women under the pseudonym “Carlos Danger.”
These contradictions swirl. Such a confounding mixture of virtues and vices leaves us wondering how we should truly feel about the man, and one can imagine those close to him feel similarly. This is undoubtedly the filmmakers’ intent, with ambiguity settling across the documentary like dust. We bear the onus of judgment.
At the end of the film, Weiner says the documentary will ultimately fail to fully portray his story, as it will succumb to the sensationalism which infects everything related to him and his mishaps. This speculation, though, rests unfounded. “Weiner” presents him in the round. It is at once a fascinating character study and an engrossing political tragicomedy, making no effort to reconcile the inconsistencies of its titular figure, but instead reveling in them with wry humor and wary insight.