WEINER, documentary, rated R, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3 chiles
Aristotle had a term for it:
hamartia. Generally defined as a “tragic flaw,” in classical tragedy, it’s the character weakness in a great man that, in combination with external factors, brings about his undoing.
The potential for greatness in Anthony Weiner is debatable, but certainly not dismissible. The former New York City Democratic congressman and mayoral candidate was an impassioned gladiator for progressive and humanitarian causes. This documentary opens with a clip of his fiery 2011 speech on the floor of the House of Representatives, in which he excoriates the Republicans for blocking a measure to provide compensation for sickened 9/11 first responders.
Weiner was a rising star in the Democratic Party, a frequent guest on news and late night shows. He was connected to the top tier of political power — his wife, Huma Abedin, is a close aide to Hillary Clinton.
And then the roof fell in. Sex scandals are common enough in politics as to be almost banal, but Weiner’s (the movie’s epigram quotes Marshall McLuhan: “The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers”) struck an electric chord in the New York tabloid press. He was, it seems, given to sexting and sending pictures of his bulging underwear to strangers via the social media.
His response to the, er, exposé, followed a familiar template. He lied, to his wife and to the press, then fessed up when faced with irrefutable proof, did a mea maxima culpa, and finally resigned.
A couple of years later he announced his comeback by filing to run for mayor of New York City. The public seemed ready to forgive. In the early Democratic primary polls, Weiner was on top. Bill de Blasio languished near the bottom.
Enter filmmakers Josh Kriegman (a former Weiner staffer) and Elyse Steinberg, with a proposal to follow the candidate through the campaign, recording the drama in his public and personal life from a fly-on-the-wall perspective. They had extraordinary access, which remarkably was not shut down when in mid-campaign, new and even more damning sexting evidence emerged. Some of it had happened since his resignation from Congress. Some of it turns out to be with a porn star, who makes a selfpromoting appearance later on in the film.
The result is one of the most fascinating and excruciating political documentaries you will ever see.
In Weiner’s defense, his scandal involved no molesting of interns, no infidelities, just a shocking addiction to a penchant so humiliating and so eminently discoverable as to demand the question, “Anthony, what’s wrong with you?” MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell asks just that question, and the scrappy Weiner fires back with attitude. Later, the documentary camera is in the room at the Weiner home when he watches that interview with Abedin. He’s clearly pleased with himself. She shakes her head and leaves the room.
Abedin is a thoroughly appealing character, and though there will always be people who consider themselves qualified to dictate to someone else’s marriage, she earns deep sympathy for her steadfastness in the face of almost unbearable pain. Weiner himself sheds sympathy like a stripper as the movie progresses. Shock therapy tries to cure addiction by associating it with something profoundly negative. His humiliating downfall doesn’t seem to have done the trick for Weiner.
At the end of the film, Kriegman asks him, “Why have you let me film this?” Weiner can only shrug.