“I did a lot of things,” the disgraced congressman and subsequently disgraced New York City mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner says in the opening scene of the documentary that bears his name. “But I did a lot of other things too.” Weiner repeats this monkish proverb elsewhere in the film. It’s the most compelling and mysterious utterance he proffers, a statement of dynamic possibilities: Were Weiner’s SMS dalliances, which twice sent the media establishment into convulsions, only the beginning of his mistakes? Or is this just the politician’s limp version of “Please clap,” an exhausted plea to be remembered as the populist liberal fire-breather of yore?
Delivering a blow-by-blow account of Weiner’s tumultuous 2013 mayoral bid, the doc thrives on a truly bewildering amount of access to the candidate. When the press breaks the news that Weiner, under the guise of Carlos Danger, had continued sexting even after his resignation from Congress, filmmakers Josh Kriegman and Elyse Sternberg are in his campaign office. Volunteers slow down as they walk by televisions announcing the news. Then Weiner’s in his office, preparing a speech for an impending press conference about the revelations, and the filmmakers get to stay in the room for a while as he discusses the state of things with his wife, longtime Hilary Clinton aide Huma Abedin. The filmmakers’ proximity to such moments is both cringe-inducing and plainly irresistible, but Weiner never discovers a greater purpose beyond its undeniable sideshow appeal.
Kriegman and Sternberg’s major failing is their familiar, tiresome approach to media criticism. The screen is flush with Stephen Colbert and John Stewart segments, cable news pundits, graphical reenactments of Weiner’s text conversations, and press scrums hounding the candidate and his wife with increasingly brash questions. Such a concentrated account of media hysteria has its value (its velocity and canned outrage is dizzying), but Weiner tends to equate presentation with critique, and often threatens to succumb to the same brand of schadenfreude reporters and the public did. (Long sections of the final act are devoted to one of Weiner’s victim’s attempts to crash his election-night party.) Further complicating the film’s message are the candidate’s fitfully sharp diplomatic instincts: When the filmmakers cut from the heated campaign trail to scenes of him playing a doting father, is he being humanized, or is the candidate doing some canny image rehab?
The outcome of either hypothesis is underwhelming. The overriding impression Weiner leaves is that the ex-congressman is a being of pure ego, a man so enslaved to political and media machinations that he lost sight of how to humanize his self to himself. Weiner’s more candid moments of relatively private apology have a commanding air of dutiful ceremony (he primarily refers to his mistakes as “the thing” or “the dumb thing”); the politician is always lurking underneath, looking to get back in the public eye and passionately redeem his name. The film follows Weiner as he suffers through donor phone calls, public assemblies, and mundane walks through the streets of New York City. The man is plainly wounded, but is it because he’s in anguish or simply because he’s losing?
Despite what he calls a “virtually unprecedented ability to fuck things up day by day,” Weiner’s most potent addiction is his lust to win the news cycle and keep playing the game. The filmmakers circle this aspect of his personality, capturing Weiner’s bafflingly self-satisfied reactions to some of his lowest moments on the cable networks, but they miss repeated opportunities to prod him about it. Instead, their film does far too much of what the broader media did: Whenever momentum flags, Weiner trots Abedin into the frame to invite speculation about her motivations and true emotions. The film has little access to either, so it makes do with a series of cold stares and well-rehearsed blank expressions. For such an up-close view of a political and marital train wreck, Weiner’s primary subjects exhibit surprisingly few candid emotions. Even in a post-mortem interview, Weiner remains elusive and evasive, which seems like another way of saying that he remains a politician.