Directors: Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg
Starring: Anthony Weiner & Huma Abedin
Weiner is incredibly compelling viewing. It’s a familiar story: politician is embroiled in sex scandal, wife stands by him. We’ve seen it in The Good Wife and we’ve seen it in Hillary Clinton, Silda Wall Spitzer, and Huma Abedin. With each scandal the same questions arise, questions deftly addressed by Weiner: why do these women stay with their husbands through these scandals? And, crucially, why do the scandals even matter?
This documentary follows the campaign for Anthony Weiner as mayor of New York in 2013. He resigned from his post as congressman in 2011 after he accidentally posted a photo of his semi-erect penis in underwear on his official Twitter account. If you’re interested in a play-by-play of how that scandal unfolded I recommend Googling ‘Weinergate’. NSFW, obviously.
Fascinatingly, in the public debates which form the first part of the race Weiner confronts the legacy of his scandal head on. He is sorry, but he’s not embarrassed. In debate after debate, competitor after competitor goes for the easy, lazy dick pic joke, and time and again the crowd answers with resounding boos. It is mesmerising to watch. It is damn good film editing, but it’s also damn good politics.
In the initial stages of his run for mayor, Weiner basically took the shrug emoji (¯\_(ツ)_/¯) approach to his first sexting scandal, and somehow, it worked. Just before the second scandal broke Weiner was topping the polls as preferred candidate. However, the crucial part of this sentence is second scandal.
One of the filmmakers, Josh Kriegman, was a former senior staffer for Weiner. When they started filming, he thought he was capturing Weiner’s political comeback. To be already embedded in the campaign when the second scandal broke is the kind of accidental scoop second only to Jules and Gideon Naudet. The Naudet brothers were filming a documentary about a Lower Manhattan firehouse crew on what turned out to be the day two planes crashed into the World Trade Centre.
Though not addressed in the film, the implosion of the Weiner mayoral campaign echoes the 2008 collapse of Eliot Spitzer’s run as governor of New York in many ways. Both had similar pro-middle class policies, both were fiercely and unapologetically argumentative Democrats, and both were taken down by sex scandals that were actually pretty vanilla.
Why does it matter? The film tries to explore this question in several ways. In one scene where the media is hounding Weiner about the second scandal and resolutely ignoring any of his comments on policy, the camera turns to a local resident walking away as she shouts, “We don’t care about that! We’re from the Bronx – we don’t are about any of that personal garbage!”
After a difficult question on the scandal from a member of the crowd at a public debate in City Island, Weiner displays his skill as an orator by launching straight into a ‘nobody’s perfect’ bit and outlining his policies that will benefit the area. In contrast to the single clap which greeted him, the crowd cheers. There is no Tony Abbott-style getting frozen in a cycle of mute tiny nods for this guy.
He says he has the best policies, and he is probably right. The problem is him managing himself badly. The film presents Weiner as having a fundamental lack of impulse control, and dissects how that transfers to political situations. When shouting down a Republican bill to remove 9/11 rescue workers’ healthcare his spectacular loss of temper is a gift, but what about more sensitive negotiations?
Anybody can make a mistake, but it was how he managed that mistake which led to his undoing. At the end of the film, exasperated with himself, Weiner observes that he seems to have “an unlimited capacity to fuck things up”.
There are many times like this in the film when Weiner and Abedin are self-aware, insightful, and astonishingly open. This film would be interesting regardless of how well it was made. Weiner was one of the most successful congressmen of all time and Abedin is one of Hillary Clinton’s most senior staffers. They are amazing people. But it is also a testament to the greatness of this documentary team that the story opened up in this way. Excellent camerawork captures the mood of the room – the quick cuts to zoom in on Abedin’s arms folded cupping her elbows with her hands, the excruciatingly lingering silences, the almost-missed smirks from competitors. The editing is spectacular, culled from 400 hours of raw footage. It’s dramatic, and really captures a sense of rooting for this guy but also frustrated with how he has repeatedly messed up or, more accurately, allowed himself to be caught messing up.
Weiner says he doesn’t blame the press for their role in the scandal(s) because they are just doing what they do, and that because of the rhythms of the press and their natures, editorials and front pages have no nuance. This film does have nuance. It’s a great story well-told and a must-see for anyone interested in politics, or relationships, or the media, or sex scandals. Which really covers just about everybody. See it.
Words by Yvonne Buresch
Wiener screens on Saturday 9, 12:40pm at Luna Leederville, and on Sunday 17, 1:15pm at Luna SX.
View the full program of films on the Revelation Perth International Film Festival website, www.revelationfilmfest.org.