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Review: Politics and cellphones make strange bedfellows in documentary ‘Weiner’

“Weiner”
Former U.S. congressman Anthony Weiner in the political documentary “Weiner.”
(IFC Films)

Once again, truth proves stranger than fiction in the raucous and provocative documentary “Weiner.”  This absorbing, entertaining film takes a decidedly warts-and-all look at disgraced, seven-term Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner and his propulsive if ill-fated 2013 run for mayor of New York City. 

Toward the end of the movie, Josh Kriegman, who directed and produced with Elyse Steinberg, bluntly asks the beleaguered Weiner, “Why have you let me film this?”  It’s a question that viewers are likely to be wondering throughout as the filmmakers’ cameras capture Weiner, perhaps best known for his career-crippling sexting scandals of 2011 and 2013, in a plethora of awkward, squirm-inducing, shameless, even clueless moments. 

If the unfortunately named Weiner’s purpose was to somehow help vindicate himself for cyber-cheating on his wife, longtime Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin, by showing what a warrior of the people he was — and still could be — he may have partially succeeded.  As seen here, Weiner’s steely self-possession, unflagging drive, scrappy charm and, it seems, genuine desire to make a difference add up to the kind of politician you want on your side.  In these dizzying days of Donald Trump, Weiner’s flaws can seem a bit quaint.

Still, Weiner’s mayoral bid, coming so soon after his 2011 resignation from Congress in wake of his massively covered and derided scandal (highlighted here by a raft of cringe-inducing, yet funny, Weiner-bashing tabloid spreads, cable news clips and late-night TV talk show bits) was the kind of uphill climb that makes for a riveting documentary narrative. The filmmakers appear to judge via some of their editing choices, but the story pretty much wrote itself; they just needed to shoot it. 

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And shoot it they did with a kind of joyful abandon, thanks to what feels like an all-access pass to all things Weiner.  Whether prowling his turbulent campaign headquarters with its coterie of sweating staffers, the comfy Manhattan home he shares with Abedin and their toddler son, or the many personal, public and backstage dramas that erupted along the way, Kriegman and Steinberg, who co-wrote the film with Eli Despres, enjoyably sweep us into the hugely idiosyncratic ride that was Weiner’s stab at political reinvention.

Though we already know the campaign’s outcome, the film builds palpable tension as it bobs and weaves up to and through election day and, especially, election night. That’s when Weiner must escape the camera-ready clutches of former phone-sex buddy Sydney Leathers, who’s lying in wait for a 15-minutes-of-fame showdown with the man whose online identity was “Carlos Danger.” 

Viewers hankering for a deeply examined portrayal of Weiner may be disappointed; it’s not that kind of doc.  There are no staged talking-head pundits or observers dissecting the politician’s psychosocial makeup; no chats with friends or family members to support, decry or help enlighten us about Weiner; no youthful history to foretell his adult proclivities.  Weiner himself, for all the screen time he receives here, does little beyond the mea culpas and let’s-move-on requests to reveal what winds his clock.   

Yet, there are enough fly-on-the-wall moments, including a funny riff by Weiner about what that phrase even means, that we feel more intimate with the film’s star than we may have the right to. Sleight of hand? Maybe. Then again, this is a film about politics.    

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As for Abedin, who was game to participate at all here, she mostly just glowers and simmers at her husband’s gaffes, outbursts and other dubious tactics.  Her highly visible presence, however, does help effectively hammer home one of Weiner’s key defenses: No one other than his wife was hurt by his transgressions which, as others have pointed out, never included any actual physical contact — so get over it.    

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‘Weiner’

MPAA rating: R for language and some sexual material

Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes

Playing: The Landmark, West Los Angeles; ArcLight, Hollywood


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