I went into Weiner expecting a thoughtful dissection of former Congressman Anthony Weiner's numerous public mistakes, a la Fog of War or The Unknown Known. Though obviously, unlike those Errol Morris documentaries that questioned former Secretaries of Defense later in life, we'd get the ruminations of a man driven out of politics by what seems to be an intense addiction to sexting.
That's not what directors Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman have crafted, however. Instead, we travel back to 2013, when Weiner was launching a post-scandal campaign for Mayor of New York City with surprisingly successful early results. And then, as anyone who recognizes the name Carlos Danger knows, it all came crashing down.
Kriegman, a former staffer of Weiner's, apparently pitched the documentary idea to the recently deposed Congressman up until the announcement of his mayoral run; from there, their team had access to Weiner and his family throughout the Democratic primaries. It's the family that gives Weiner its depth; his wife, Huma Abedin, was pregnant with their first child when the original sexting scandal broke. She's also an extremely close aide to presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton, which makes them a power couple to the extreme and all the more endearing when Abedin sets her blossoming career aside to forgive her husband. Abedin's initial pardon of Weiner is earnest, beautiful, and brave, which makes our access to the trials and tribulations of scandal-part-two that much more disgusting.
Yet Weiner isn't an abhorrent human being. More than anything, he seems woefully broken. We're never told what kept their marriage going—besides "lots of therapy"—but it never seems like the lessons learned have really sunk in. He says all the right things, and he's charming as heck, yet he seems to be pursuing the same existence that led him down those dark alleys in the first place. His bad choices are attributed to the "transactional nature" of politics and transient interactions with a variety of people, ignoring that not every politician has the same deviancies (just most) or that other cheaters typically end up in bed with their new partners, not keeping up an entirely online-centric series of relationships. His uniqueness stands out, but he's quick to offer the usual apologies...until they don't work any longer.
The directors have been quick to draw their own comparisons between Weiner and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. Both men have a canny understanding of the modern-day news cycle; they also love listening to themselves talk. And although Weiner knows his policies inside-out while Trump can barely keep his facts straight, both will throw caution to the wind when the situation calls for impressive gestures on a grand stage.
At the end of the day, however, he’s more of a Gary Hart. As captured in Matt Bai’s All the Truth is Out, Hart was the clear frontrunner for the Democratic nomination in the lead-up to the 1988 presidential election. There was no doubt that he was smarter and better suited for the United States presidency than anyone else who might stand in his way; alas, an extremely twisty scandal buried Hart, just like it buried Weiner.
But that’s not all they have in common; both men refused to admit they’d done anything wrong. Hart insisted that no sexual impropriety had taken place, despite rumors involving numerous other women and photos of this specific accuser on Hart’s lap. And Weiner, though he did allow filmmakers to follow him around for months, never speaks specifically about the scandal. He won’t refer to the women by name, won’t say “sexting” or “naked pictures” or anything related to what actually happened. In interviews with the directors and during his filmed interactions, he’s as cagey as an otherwise-apologetic public figure can be.
That lack of full disclosure upfront is what did Weiner in, and that’s what makes Weiner so compelling. He clearly saw it as the documentation of his comeback story, his rise to mayor of the world’s most influential city and proof that there are second chances in life. And also, like Hart, affirmation that a public servant’s uncertain personal life shouldn’t doom their ability to hold office.
For a while, the people of New York agreed. And Weiner makes the case that, even after the second half of the scandal broke, plenty of regular folk were still on the Weiner bandwagon. But the media didn’t care, and it didn’t show in the mayoral primary; for the first time in the history of politics, we get to see a person’s downfall play out on-screen. Americans can be surprisingly apologetic, but they hate being lied to far more than being surprised. It was two strikes and you’re out for Anthony Weiner; presenting that second strike with such disciplined care makes this one of the most enthralling documentaries in recent memory.