Filmmakers Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg were hired in 2013 to document disgraced former US Representative Anthony Weiner's campaign for mayor of New York City. Though Weiner's seven-term congressional career had been brought to an abrupt end in 2011 -- when he tweeted a photo of his boxer brief-covered bulge out into the world, and kicked off a sexting scandal that extinguished his rising star -- this mayoral campaign was to be his comeback.
That's not exactly how things panned out.
What's remarkable is how successful the campaign is at its beginnings. Weiner leads the polls, and the citizens of New York actively seem to want to forgive him. Then a new round of explicit selfies and texts come to light after Weiner had so adamantly insisted he'd put all that behind him, and everything goes south. Kriegman and Steinberg's are there to capture the implosion from within, and the new documentary, "Weiner," is the fascinating result.
Opening with a montage of highlights from Weiner's time in the House of Representatives, where his fiery rhetoric made him something of a hero to progressives at a time when so many Democrats lacked the courage to stand up for their convictions. There's a twinge of sadness over what might have been. Weiner may very well have been able to accomplish some good things in his career, which makes the anger from voters (to say nothing of his own staff members) all the more palpable once the other shoe drops.
The hotheaded, combative nature that won him so many fans comes back to bite him in the ass. Weiner's scrappy, fighting ways make it impossible for him to accept defeat, and he refuses to drop out even after it's become abundantly clear that there's no coming back from this. The lengthy mayoral campaign leaves plenty of time for the media and New York voters to ask why he deserves another chance after deceiving the public, earning back their grudging respect, only to end up doing it all over again.
It's mesmerizing to see the inner-workings of a campaign in crisis. Given unprecedented access, Kriegman (the congressman's former chief of staff) and Steinberg witness it all. The second wave of scandals involved a young woman named Sydney Leathers, who uses the attention to secure her own 15 minutes of fame. By the time Leathers is chasing Weiner through a McDonald's, it seems more likely that you're watching satirical fiction than a chronicle of real-life incidents.
There's certainly a train wreck aspect to the film as we watch everything fall apart. It's compelling in a way that you can't tear yourself away from. We all love a scandal; the more salacious the details, the better. But the directors manage to paint Weiner as a complicated individual, who can't seem to help himself, and his plight is both funny and heart-wrenching at the same time.
His conviction is almost admirable until the moments when we see firsthand the toll it takes on his home life. His wife, Huma Abedin, can't avoid being sucked into the media frenzy that ensues. The film's most sympathetic figure, it's impossible not to feel for her as she valiantly attempts to salvage both her dignity and her own political aspirations (Abedin is currently a top advisor for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign), all while facing scrutiny from the media as well as the public over her decision to stand by her man.
That throughline is also the source of the film's most uncomfortable moments. At home, the tension between the couple is palpable, but for her part, Abedin remains tight-lipped around the filmmakers' cameras. She's content to let silent glares speak for her, and verbal insight she gives into her state of mind comes when she's asked by Kriegman how she's feeling, responding that "it's like having a nightmare," before smiling and walking out of the room.
Weiner is clearly a rampant narcissist: his ambition seems only matched by his arrogance. That craving for attention is a trait he seems to share with the majority of politicians. Late in the film, Kriegman asks Weiner, "Why are you letting us film this?" Weiner himself doesn't seem to have an answer; the best he can offer is a noncommittal shrug.
Still, in the age of Trump -- when it appears we have a candidate whose behavior can't grow odious enough to dissuade his base from voting for him -- Weiner's failings come across as almost quaint by comparison. Now, the film feels even more like it's capturing the moment just before politics descended over the edge completely. With a potent cocktail of politics, ego, and media sensationalism, "Weiner" offers a spellbinding (and often horrifying) snapshot of where we are now.