In 1972’s THE CANDIDATE, in which Robert Redford’s idealistic Bill McKay runs for the US Senate, there’s just a hint that his campaign might be compromised by his ‘fooling around’ with a female supporter. But the moment passes, and it merely adds to the picture of McKay as a flawed human being, succeeding against political odds thanks to his plain-spoken honesty and charisma. Forty years later, WEINER gives us a distorting mirror image of this story, a documentary which won the Grand Jury Prize at 2016’s Sundance Film Festival (founded by Redford’s company) with the citation “A fast paced verite film that unfolds like a modern Shakespearean tragedy.”
Directors/producers Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg were allowed almost total access to both the campaign and home life of Anthony Weiner, during his bid to become Mayor of New York in 2013. This would, even under normal circumstances, be a high-risk strategy for Weiner and his wife Huma Adebin (Hillary Clinton’s personal assistant, advisor and former Deputy Chief of Staff), given Weiner’s previous political downfall. After ‘sexting’ pictures of his bulging Y-fronts, admitting fly-on-the-wall cameras into their lives might be seen as foolhardy, if not mad.
And so it proves, to the horrified fascination of the audience, who find themselves in the privileged position of Weiner’s bewildered campaign staff – albeit without the responsibility of damage limitation. Weiner’s people are clinging on by their fingertips, while a vast and stinking sink-hole opens up beneath them. But before that, the film takes a canter through the archives of Weiner’s considerable achievements as a young New York City Councillor, and then as Member of the House of Representatives where he vociferously defended Medicare and attacked Republicans for trying to deny funds to ‘first responders’ affected by 9/11.
Weiner has tried to disguise himself under the pseudonym ‘Carlos Danger’…
Never less than highly visible and popular on the streets of New York, Weiner acknowledges – in a rare moment of self-reflection amid the refrain of later mea culpas – that maybe it was this need for attention that spilt over into the cruder sort of exposure that led to his enforced resignation from Congress. He became the subject of wall-to-wall TV mockery from Jay Leno, Steven Colbert and Jon Stewart, and an excruciating sexting exchange was read out in full on REAL TIME WITH BILL MAHER by Maher and Jane Lynch.
But Anthony Weiner’s sorry, and he apologises to his wife, his staff and the people of New York. He assures them, as he prepares to come back from the political wilderness, that it won’t happen again. Except that it does, and just as Weiner’s mayoral campaign is up and running, and his popularity reflected in the polls, more recent sexting comes to light. Only this time, in an even greater gift to late-night television, Weiner has tried to disguise himself under the pseudonym ‘Carlos Danger’.
Steinberg and Kriegman (the latter an ex-employee of Weiner’s) mercilessly and brilliantly records the unravelling of the latest campaign, as well as the increasing tensions between Weiner and his wife Huma, and in campaign HQ where the staff desperately try to bail out a rapidly sinking dinghy. The media pack are now in full cry, culminating in farcical scenes on Election Night itself, when the Weiner crew try to dodge the Howard Stern-inspired appearance of Weiner’s ‘sextee’ Sydney Leathers – who seizes her fifteen minutes of fame and in the process makes Monica Lewinsky look like Mother Teresa.
With its poignant echoes of THE GOOD WIFE, it would have been easy for the makers of WEINER to just point the camera and let the melodrama unfold. Instead they have produced an extraordinarily sympathetic morality tale, with all the nuance Weiner finds lacking in the sensational media coverage, and it’s beautifully edited by Eli Despres (also responsible for the killer whale documentary BLACKFISH). Anthony Weiner’s most public recent appearance was playing ‘NASA Director’ in the Syfy Channel’s franchise SHARKNADO 3: OH HELL NO! How nuanced is that?