DIR: Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg • WRI: Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg, Eli B. Despres • PRO: Josh Kriegman, Sean McGing, Elyse Steinberg • DOP: Josh Kriegman • ED: Eli B. Despres • MUS: Jeff Beal • CAST: Jennifer Saunders, Joanna Lumley, Julia Sawalha
Is electing politicians the right means to the goal of democracy (http://www.headstuff.org/2015/12/we-do-not-live-in-a-democracy-but-heres-how-we-could/)? The need to build up contacts and maintain a political support base makes them vulnerable to influences other than the common good. It also puts these candidates under intense scrutiny from the media, magnifying any of their imperfections. Is it healthy for democracies to focus so much on personalities rather than problems? The documentary Weiner provides a relevant case study by following the New York mayoral campaign of Anthony Weiner.
Anthony Weiner was a firebrand Democrat Congressman for Brooklyn and Queens, his championing of liberal causes being demonstrated by the film’s opening montage. He furiously berates Republicans voting to cut aid towards 9/11 responders. He is praised for challenging conservative doublethink without the timidity common amongst other Democrats. He speaks passionately for affordable healthcare, housing and education. In cosmopolitan fashion, he is a Jew married to an Indian Muslim, Huma Abedin, herself an accomplished political figure as a close advisor to Hillary Clinton. Bill Clinton even officiated their wedding. He has all the makings of a major figure in the mainstream American left. This montage then crashes to an end with the infamous “dick-pic” for which he is now known.
After accidentally posting a picture of his bulging underwear to his Twitter account, Weiner eventually lost his seat in Congress and became a punchline for every comedian and news show on American TV. The surname Weiner makes the nature of this controversy all the more absurd. One could understand a viewer watching Weiner and thinking it was a mockumentary from Armando Iannuci at his most cynical. This is not only because of the film’s darkly comic tone but how naturally fitted to cinematic narrative so many of the moments captured play out. For example, a cringe-inducingly awkward silence between him and his wife drags on and on until he asks the documentary crew for a moment of privacy.
The crew have seemingly total access to Weiner as he launches his campaign for the 2013 New York City mayor’s race. Weiner makes for a compelling subject aside from his eccentricities. He has a relatable desire to overcome his public embarrassment and campaign on the social issues for which he had fought so passionately. Far more compelling however is his wife Huma Abedin and the relationship they share. Weiner’s mayoral campaign gets off the ground largely because of her support. To this day, she is one of Hillary Clinton’s closest assistants and could be influential in the Hillary presidency the American media has hyped for at least a decade. Therefore, when she manages her husband’s campaign, many are joining more for the chance to work with her than him.
Why did she agree to this? There is the possibility that she sees it as a way to restore her husband’s good name and by association hers. What does become apparent is that she is an absolute saint for putting up with him. Weiner must have some kind of secret for keeping women in love with him (that he must share) because she stands by him even after repeated public humiliation.
Just as he’s topping the polls he is embroiled in further scandals around his use of dating sites for “sexting” and further dick-pics. It is considered not only a betrayal of his wife’s trust but the public’s trust. The documentary captures thorough footage of his campaign’s subsequent meltdown while maintaining sensitivity towards its subjects.
Weiner believes he can ride out the controversy once again by focusing on “the issues” that are surely of more immediate concern to voters’ lives. Yet he is met with silence whenever he asks the press for on-topic questions. When he opens up to all questions, several voices at once shout about his trustworthiness. This creates a challenge for him in that anything he’s likely to be quoted on in the media will be about his scandal. The tabloid press harass his staff and threaten to fabricate stories about affairs. Meanwhile, bigger outlets link the story to their ongoing obsession with Hillary Clinton, speculating on what advice Hillary would give Huma about being humiliated by your husband.
Feeling snookered by the media focus on his scandal, Weiner reverts to his combative tendencies and refuses to back down from hecklers, unreceptive crowds and tabloid journalists. The campaign spirals from one controversy to another, building towards a tense climax involving a confrontation with one of Weiner’s texting partners.
There is a craft to the editing of this documentary which realises an arc to Weiner’s journey and his relationship with his wife. The pacing is steady and engaging but also builds dread each time viewers realise that what seemed to be a disastrous low-point for the campaign is still weeks away from the election. The neat ordering of events into a very cinematic narrative along with frequent moments of spontaneous humour make this a more accessible watch than one would expect from a politics documentary.
Earlier in the race, personal attacks from Weiner’s opponents were booed by crowds. Towards the end, his personality was all anyone would talk about. Weiner does demonstrate some introspection, pondering whether the pressures of political life influence personality quirks or if it works the other way around? Are people with emotional issues somehow drawn to politics? Weiner does not avoid responsibility for his transgressions but still feels aggrieved the media “don’t do nuance”. He warns that no matter how much this documentary tries to shed light, it will still be framed in terms of the guy with the funny name who did weird things.
This documentary is about more than that. It is about what role the media should play in democracy. It is about how election campaigns strategise to navigate the media. It is about the boundaries between public and private life. It is about a woman who deserves a trophy for World’s Best Wife. And it is about how much political power depends on so few people, each with their flaws, each subjected to a bizarre nightmare of constant scrutiny. Maybe there’s another way to do this democracy thing.
Weiner is released 8th July 2016