In 2011, Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner – a firebrand in support of generally liberal causes whose soundbytes always seem to include his championship of ‘the middle class’ – was forced to resign after a ‘sexting’ scandal. In 2013, Weiner – who is married to Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin – entered the race to be Democratic candidate in the New York Mayoral election. Documentarians Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg set out to follow Weiner during this bid, which began well as his impassioned, give-me-a-second-chance message and seemingly genuine commitment to speaking up for constituents earned him a lead in the polls … until Sydney Leathers, another of his sexting partners, popped up to reveal he hadn’t completely changed his ways, whereupon his support haemorrhaged and his political career (and private life) became farcical. It bears repeating before watching Weiner that the scandal simply involved exchanges of messages and (crucially) pictures between people who were never in the same room together and had no physical contact … Weiner ended up being disqualified for public office because his comical scandal (taken with his silly name) was wrapped up in communications media he (along with his press detractors) plainly didn’t fully understand. By contrast, a great many other politicians in the US (and Britain) have owned up to far worse and basically got away with it by shrugging and pouting.
In a key moment in the film, an offscreen Kriegman tries to get a non-flip answer about why Weiner finds it so hard to talk about his feelings and is rewarded with an interesting diversion about the format of fly-on-the-wall documentary. Weiner is a charismatic, attractive personality with a mile-wide streak of self-deprecation which makes it easier to sympathise with him than with the suspiciously well-funded and –connected Leathers (who is seen in extracts from her Vivid Video ‘sex tape’ release) or the press who won’t let him get off the topic of his scandal to tackle the issues. More sympathetic still are trodden-down voters who turn up at a meeting to ask about crime rates, housing, trash collection, etc., and can’t get a word in because reporters keep asking the same question they don’t care about over and over. A star subject, Weiner also has a narcissist edge which suggests his political career has been shaped by viewings of Mr Smith Goes to Washington and Tanner ’88. When his popularity rating collapses, he suggests to an adviser that he could turn it around, not citing a real politician as a precedent but Warren Beatty in Bulworth.
In many instances, this is a test case of the net era see-saw of opinion as stories are let slip in slanted dribs and compensatory drabs. A seemingly damaging incident has Weiner argue fiercely with a Jewish constituent who has called him a ‘scumbag’ as cameras roll and the clip goes viral to his disservice, only for Jon Stewart to play the whole film and discover the constituent thinks he’s a scumbag not because of the sexting but because he’s married to an Arab (to which Stewart responds ‘oh … [bleep] that guy!’). Abedin, a high-flier whose career is as imperilled as her home life by what she keeps finding out about her husband, is another strong screen presence, and the most uncomfortable aspect of the film is the way she shuts down and becomes obviously unhappy as things roll on out of her control. There’s an almost Victorian contrast between her mature, poised dignity and Leathers’ chubby, cheery, mercilessly calculating trashiness. It’s to Weiner’s credit he never blames anyone but himself, though he does seem surprised the real world truly isn’t like the sort of political dramedy he wants to inhabit. Subsequent to the film, Abedin has remained on Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid team …and Weiner had a cameo in Sharknado 3.