WEINER

 

Dir. Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg. U.S. 2016
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Directed by Josh Kriegman, Anthony Weiner’s former Chief of Staff, and Elyse Steinberg, Weiner is a compelling documentary about the rise and fall of former Democratic New York Congressman Anthony Weiner whose promising career floundered on revelations of an Internet sexting scandal. Underneath all the sleazy revelations, however, it is an exposé of a voracious media and a stark realization of the depths to which our democracy has descended. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, the film traces the career of Anthony Weiner from his days as a passionate spokesman for the powerless in Congress to his resignation from Congress and his comeback campaign for Mayor of New York.


The scandal which forced him to resign from Congress involved neither criminal behavior nor corruption but an inappropriate exchange of sexually explicit text messages and photos with a number of different women while living with his wife, Huma Abedin, a long-time Clinton confidant, whose marriage is shown to suffer under constant strain. Most of the film takes place during the 2013 New York Mayoralty race and provides an insightful look at the nitty-gritty of a political campaign as Kriegman and Steinberg track Weiner’s rallies, fund raising calls to donors, staff meetings, parades, and other campaign activities. It is a picture of an energetic, communicative candidate, open about his past indiscretions, who tells the voters that his problems are a thing of the past and that he can be trusted to run the city in a competent, humane, and progressive manner.


At one point the polls show Weiner in the lead with 25% of the vote, but his advantage is short-lived and fades rapidly after the revelation by a former porn star of another cyber-episode in which photos and text messages were sent under the pseudonym “Carlos Danger, a revelation that leaves the candidate, his family, staff, and supporters in a state of shock. Much to the chagrin of his wife, Weiner refuses to give up his campaign and Huma, tired of putting on a brave face before the camera, is heard saying, "it's like living a nightmare.” Of course, the new scandal provides a field day for the cruel jokes of late night comedians who are so eager to yuk about the man’s last name and his sordid behavior that they don’t even notice they are talking about a human being in pain.


The scandal also provides a titillating story for the reporters of cable news shows. In one interview, a smug Lawrence O’Donnell badgers Weiner by repeatedly asking him, “What’s wrong with you?”, a question that only serves to delight the viewer’s need to violate another person’s privacy, feed their voyeurism, and stay aloof from self-examination. On the campaign trail, the candidate, who decides to stay in the race, wants to talk about issues such as housing and jobs, but reporters want only to discuss his sexual behavior, issues which he does his best to avoid. The theater of the absurd becomes even weirder when Weiner’s sexting companion, Sidney Leathers, a Trump supporter, shows up at the candidate’s campaign headquarters looking for a confrontation and Weiner is forced to flee through the back door of a McDonald’s restaurant.


Through it all, though, Weiner comes across as a good man but one with serious problems whose explanations come across as self-serving in light of the damage done to his family and his legion of committed supporters. Though it can be depressing, Weiner is a gripping film that does not judge the candidate’s actions but simply chronicles the self-destruction of a once promising progressive voice. The fact that he was in therapy for years without any measurable results calls into question society’s proclivity to marginalize alternative therapies in favor of so-called “mental health professionals,” whether or not they produce results.


While Weiner enlightens and entertains, it does not probe any real feelings, either those of Anthony or Huma, does not discuss the nature of compulsive behavior, or question Weiner’s judgment as a husband or parent. In maintaining its distance, it contributes to the exploitation and marginalization of an emotionally damaged human being who needs supportive treatment and compassion. While Weiner may have been guilty of lying, disregarding the needs of his family, and being run by an out-of-control ego, his election would still not have threatened our freedoms, the U.S. constitution, or the peace of the world, but the media, in its relentless pursuit of ratings and false equivalencies, cannot make such subtle distinctions.


GRADE: A-




Howard Schumann


 
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