With plenty of heart and lots of laughs, the new documentary about Anthony Weiner helps prove that even our most scandalous politicians are still human beings, just like anyone else.
Weiner opens with a quote from the late communications professor Marshall McLuhan: “The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers.” The message is clear: first-time directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg recognize their subject material’s inherent comedy, but want us to move on from immature humor. The disgraced politician can’t help that his last name is a synonym for penis, so let’s focus on the story and man behind the headline. Not only does this film prove it’s more than a one-note gag, but it shows Anthony Weiner is defined by more than his misguided mistakes: he’s a human being, just like you and me. Simply put, Weiner turns its titular character into 2016’s strongest cinematic protagonist thus far.
The documentary follows Weiner’s 2013 mayoral candidacy, beginning roughly three months before the election and ending in the days after his defeat, as he struggles to regain the public’s trust and quell a bloodthirsty media. The film presents itself as remarkably honest: How many politicians would allow a camera crew into their offices, into their homes, even into their bedrooms? It’s hard to imagine Weiner has anything left to hide, and by the time the second scandal is revealed near the midpoint, the candidate’s expressed such an acceptance of his own wrongdoing that rather than turning the audience against him, it only forces us to sympathize with him even more. This is because Weiner has come to represent something that all but the most heartless viewers should relate to: a flawed person who desires to not be judged by his mistakes, but rather the good he’s trying to do in the world.
Of course, it helps that the film’s antagonist comes across as an unbeatable evil. Weiner faces a constant barrage of questions and scrutiny from an unrelenting media, allowing the filmmakers to offer a scathing indictment of a modern journalistic approach, in which reporters cling to click bait headlines and push public figures to breaking points over personal matters. Weiner is not without his own meltdowns, including his outburst on Lawrence O’Donnell’s show and his post-defeat middle finger to the tabloid cameras, but by then in the film his explosions feel justified thanks to the frustrations he has somehow superhumanly managed to keep bottled up. The villainy manifests itself halfway through in the form of Sydney Leathers, the object of Weiner’s second scandal, who received nude pictures of his genitalia. Not only do we perceive her as the shallow catalyst of the crisis, she also capitalizes on her involvement for personal gain, jump starting an adult film career in a debut titled “Weiner and Me.” Her active nature as an antagonist also helps to drive the film towards one of the more enjoyable climaxes of the year.
In contrast to Leathers, who represents shame and superficiality, is Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin, the silent and troubled better half to our hero. It’s difficult to predict Huma’s next move throughout, as the elegant former Clinton staffer faces constant pressure to explain to the media why she’s still with this “scumbag.” Her radio silence creates a lingering tension, reminding us that she’s the lynchpin to Weiner’s career now: if she pulls out, his campaign and future political endeavors will cease to exist. But it is through Huma’s faith in her husband that the viewer comes to believe in him even more; if such an intelligent and independent woman can love and trust him, then why can’t we?
If, after all of this, the film somehow fails to align you with Anthony Weiner, it could still hardly be called a waste of time. Not only is the critique of the modern media too poignant, but the film is full of laughs, most notably in its riotous climactic sequence; one of Weiner’s advisors, Andrew Noh, nearly steals the show with perhaps 2016’s funniest scene, and serves as just one part of the entertaining ensemble surrounding the candidate and his wife. When the credits roll after a breezy 96 minutes, it’s difficult not to want to go back in time, live in New York, and vote for Anthony Weiner.