In the documentary that bears his name Anthony Weiner’s smartphone is virtually omnipresent in his hand. Whether he’s at home, in the office, in the car, walking the baby stroller down the sidewalk, you generally see him checking, well, something on his mobile device. Partly this is a product of our time and place; who doesn’t have a smartphone in their hands at all times? But it suggests something else, especially given the former representative’s noted proclivity for sexts, and especially given that we, and no one else on camera really, is privy to what he’s doing on that phone. Maybe he’s attending to political strategizing; maybe he’s just playing Candy Crush. But I watched “Weiner” directly in the aftermath of another Anthony Weiner sexting scandal and it seems to me that we can’t really know for sure. Intimacy is “Weiner’s” most notable aspect and yet, for as close as we get to him, in the end, he still seems so far away.
Initially it seems like Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman’s documentary will be a comeback story. After Weiner’s first scandal involving explicit what-have-you sent by cellphone prompts his resignation from Congress in 2011 he decides to run for Mayor of New York in 2013, initially with sweeping success, surging to first place in the polls. These early scenes, shot in a street-level handheld style and scored to 70s staples like “Theme from S.W.A.T.” and Ace Frehley’s “New York Groove” evoke a kind of 70s drama sensation, where a horribly flawed character digs deep into his soul for another shot. We already know the outcome, however, even if the documentary did not betray it in the prologue – that is, another sexting scandal erupts, sinking Weiner’s campaign, not that he’s about to abandon ship.
That not abandoning ship seems partly principled, partly vain. If it can be difficult to separate those two with politicians, well, “Weiner” becomes considerable evidence of just how aptly they go together. When you see Weiner take part in a Gay Pride parade, spewing passion through a megaphone, waving the rainbow flag, it is hard not to feel a liberal quiver in your heart. At the same time, it’s hard not to see the frenzied look in his eye, the zealous insistence on good-intentioned self-promotion. You smile and you cringe. He seems to crave attention even as the unrelenting microscope is exactly what threatens to bring him down. You see this in a moment in the back of his car, when the filmmakers are heard posing a question behind the camera and Weiner expresses annoyance by citing the definition of a Fly on the Wall documentary, how you are supposed to observe, not interfere. He does not want them there, but he totally wants them there.
Seeing Anthony Weiner in moments like these, whatever your opinion of the man’s morals or politics, is excruciating. We’ve all seen the defiance and meltdowns on camera, many of which are re-visited here, but this peek behind the curtain is more quietly stomach-curdling. Here it is not outside forces, like Lawrence O’Dell or angry citizens that feel let down by their representative, it is the people closest to him. In the wake of the latest allegation, his director of communications, Barbara Morgan, delicately inquires as to whether there will be more accusers, and if so, how many. You can feel her quietly judging him. But that’s nothing. If the image of the wife standing by her scandalous politician husband is commonplace, in “Weiner” we see that picture come to life as the wannabe Mayor’s spouse Huma Abedin emerges as the documentary’s most compelling figure. And damn if it ain’t some irony that an attention-hungry fella like Anthony Weiner gets usurped in a documentary named for him.
Abedin professes a preference for privacy, and while that might seem contradictory to her presence here, this is just an up close account, not a personal one, as we watch her wilt in real time. How precisely she feels about all this we never really know because she never really says. Instead we are left to glean her despondency from the incendiary incredulousness etched on her face, rendered in livid side-eye glances and the incredible moment when she sits eating a slice of pizza with disgust radiating from her body and toward her husband in waves. It’s like having restricted backstage access. You get just enough to know how she feels even if you can’t help but pine for Huma’s internal monologue.
Even better (much, much worse) is a sequence in the aftermath of the second scandal coming to light. Anthony and Huma are in his campaign office dealing with the fallout. He has taken a phone call to discuss their strategy with how to manage it. Huma listens on another line, pacing back and forth, shaking her head with a holy fury. When the call ends, she towers over him, arms crossed, staring down, while he appears to look past her out the window, at something, who knows what. You wonder if this will finally be the moment they verbally hash this crisis out. Then, he looks to the camera and asks if they can have a minute alone.