“A man is more than his name” is the somewhat simplistic message of “Weiner,” a fly-on-the-wall account of scandal-plagued former U.S. Congressman Anthony Weiner’s failed 2013 bid to become mayor of New York. Filmmakers Josh Kriegman (a former Weiner aide) and Elyse Steinberg utilize their seemingly unfettered access to deliver a rollicking and never-dull insider’s view of a political campaign in crisis mode, but the most fascinating questions surrounding Weiner’s epic fall remain unanswered. Primarily of interest to political junkies, and utterly lacking in any kind of explosive revelations, “Weiner” should expect a modest turnout at theatrical polls this summer ahead of a Showtime premiere in October.
For anyone who doesn’t know the pun-ready headlines that accompanied Weiner’s initial fall from grace, the pic opens with a quick primer. After provocative selfies, sext messages and other illicit communications with various women were made public, he resigned from Congress in 2011, publicly apologized for the shame he caused himself, his family and his constituents and vowed to change his ways.
By the time Weiner kicked off his mayoral run in May of 2013 — the point when the filmmakers enter the picture — it looked like those scandals were behind him, and a good chunk of the film positions Weiner as the ideal political animal. Even as the media hound him about his past behavior, his command of the issues and steadfast commitment to progressive beliefs win over voters willing to give him a second chance. In multiple instances, crowds loudly boo rival candidates trying to capitalize on Weiner’s tabloid past or position themselves as morally superior.
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As Weiner confesses to the camera, he wants to get back into politics not just for himself but also his wife, Huma Abedin, whose reputation was similarly dragged through the mud. Much of the advance buzz around “Weiner” has focused on Abedin, who has worked with Hillary Clinton for years. But for anyone either fretting or hoping that Weiner’s wife might say or do something on camera that could help or hurt Clinton, the bottom line is that Abedin remains a highly intriguing woman of mystery here, as calm and composed as her husband is argumentative and unpredictable.
That becomes especially frustrating as Weiner’s second scandal — the one that ultimately derails his mayoral dreams — breaks. Even more sordid photos and texts surface, all sent after he had supposedly learned his lesson. (The timeline of exactly when the indiscretions happened in relation to his mayoral campaign are still fuzzy, and Weiner does nothing to clarify that on camera.)
As the campaign plays damage control, Abedin participates in a press conference to demonstrate her loyalty. Behind closed doors her reactions are a mix of awkward silences, thousand-yard stares and an occasional eye roll. Why does Abedin stand by her man? The question is never really asked or answered. But she offers full support during a meeting with Weiner’s aggrieved staffers, cooly advising battle-scarred communications director Barbara Morgan to “think of the optics” if she’s photographed leaving the building looking upset.
Abedin’s level-headed control of the situation stands in a stark contrast to Weiner’s hot-headed indignation. His annoyance at late-night comedians and headline writers cracking wise with lame jokes inspired by his last name is fully justified, but he betrays little self-awareness of the part he played in reigniting a media firestorm, even in a talking-head interview conducted long after the real-time campaign footage. And he certainly doesn’t offer any insight into what motivated him to assume the preposterous online identity “Carlos Danger” and engage in the same behavior that nearly cost him his political career.
Instead, Weiner emerges as a master of changing the conversation, and “Weiner” eventually feels rigged to make audiences empathize with a man too prideful to own up to his own mistakes. When Kriegman asks Weiner if he thinks losing the support of voters has less to do with silly sex talk than with the lies on top of lies in the cover-up that followed, Weiner shrugs the notion off and claims the media is looking for a villain.
There’s something endearing about his refusal to back down — he stays in the race he was once leading and ultimately finishes with less than 5% of the vote — but also exhausting. When cable news pundit Lawrence O’Donnell glibly asks Weiner “What’s wrong with you?” during a live interview, Weiner barks back like a wild animal ripping into his prey. Watching the interview again online the next day, Weiner smiles at his performance, while Abedin shakes her head and walks off camera.
Given everything that happened, it’s a question worth exploring. Perhaps another film will find the answer.