An extraordinary thing fell into the laps of filmmakers Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg as they documented Anthony Weiner’s 2013 bid for New York City mayor: Weiner’s dick. For about six weeks, Kriegman and Steinberg filmed Weiner’s promising attempt at public redemption after his 2011 sexting scandal caused him to resign from Congress—and then a second wave of sexting allegations emerged.
“In the first six weeks when things were going well, we thought we had a pretty extraordinary comeback story on our hands,” Kriegman told me and a crowd earlier this month at a screening of his and Steinberg’s movie, simply titled Weiner, that Gawker hosted. “When things took a turn and the story changed, our intention to tell a human story beyond the headlines that stayed the same.”
The comeback story would have perhaps made a pretty extraordinary film; Weiner is beyond extraordinary. Kriegman and Steinberg’s documentary is a breathlessly paced, riveting look at a politician in the throes of crisis. In short, they had the great fortune of capturing Weiner’s self-inflicted misfortune. At Gawker HQ, Kriegman shared an anecdote about Weiner remarking, shortly after the second wave of his scandal broke, something along the lines of, “Now you have a movie.”
A portrait of a man attempting to claw himself out of the hole he dug for himself, Weiner fits nicely into the disaster culture we’re familiar with by way of reality TV and contemporary politics. In fact, this documentary is in some ways the epitome of this kind of entertainment—it’s as though Weiner feels that through sheer force of will and deft steering, he can convince you that his trainwreck is in fact a still-functioning locomotive.
You may find his efforts pathetic, but they’re nonetheless understandable coming from someone whose livelihood depends on public approval. By exchanging explicit pictures and dirty talk with strangers by text and phone, Weiner engaged in activity that millions of people do on a daily basis. His major public disservice here was not exploring his sexuality or failing at monogamy, as is the case for most people who attempt it—his major disservice was then lying about it when confronted on CNN, before he eventually resigned from Congress.
And yet, Weiner’s sexual behavior is treated as aberrant by people throughout the movie—we see Donald Trump referring to him as a “pervert,” a random guy in a deli calling him “deviant,” Lawrence O’Donnell asking, “What is wrong with you?” The reaction is, by Weiner’s account, overstated—in the documentary, he talks about there being a phoniness to the outrage. He has a point. For many people now, there is a liminal space between reality and fantasy where our online lives reside, where the boundaries of acceptable behavior and cheating become fuzzy. This space is under-examined, the implications too new to be fully grasped. That, combined with the usual American hypocrisy regarding sex, made Weiner a perfect target for public ridicule.
He did himself no favors, though. Perhaps if he hadn’t lied so much, it would be much easier to untangle the public’s misdeeds from his own. It’s at best a draw, and my ultimate interpretation hovers around an understanding that Anthony Weiner is the kind of public servant that our culture deserves.
Less immediately clear is how much his wife, Huma Abedin, deserves. She stood by him through the first sexting scandal, and we see her do it all over again a second time in Weiner, after using her own connections and clout to help Weiner raise funds and launch his mayoral bid. By his account, he fooled his wife once, so shame on him. As for the second time, regardless of whatever shame Abedin felt standing by her man during his second texting scandal, what emerges quietly while watching Weiner is that we are privy to an incredibly complicated agreement between two married people that verges far enough away from a traditional, heteronormative operation so as to appear specific to them and their priorities (which include living the sort of public life that being professional politicians requires) and ultimately kind of…well, queer. Abedin remains an aide to Hillary Clinton and she remains married to Weiner to this day.
The intricacies of Abedin’s arrangement with her husband are as palpable and unexplained in Weiner as the sadness in her eyes. It’s all subtext as Weiner hops from parade to parade, waving whatever flag he can get his hands on in the faces of potential voters, and from press conference to press conference, futilely attempting to discuss “real” issues with reporters who only want to talk about his sext life. The presence of Sydney Leathers, one of Weiner’s sext partners (and, according to her, a phone-sex partner as well), threatens to complicate matters, though the way she is portrayed in Weiner is as a one-dimensional, opportunistic bimbo who’d say anything in the pursuit of fame.
Weiner and Leathers have at least that much in common. We see footage of Weiner clearly lying on Election Day about Abedin’s whereabouts, long after his wife has ceased publicly supporting her husband, for the sake of her own political advancement (or so it’s pretty strongly implied).
Weiner is such a good reality show that it’s practically unbelievable. At the very least, it astounds with its very existence. In its final moments, Kriegman asks the inevitable question on the mind of many of its viewers: “Why have you let me film this?” Weiner shrugs in response. Then, in sit-down footage, he explains that he participated in the documentary for the sake of showing him as a “full person,” an actual human as opposed to a punch line, a politician capable of change beyond making headlines. We leave Weiner with the sense that the self-regard required to attempt to get away with sexting strangers after already getting caught doing so is the same self-regard that would drive someone to run for public office is the same self-regard that would have a man in crisis allow cameras to capture it. The bigger the picture gets, the less flattering it is, the more fascinating it is to look at.