The outstanding political film of the 2016 presidential season is about the 2013 New York City mayoral race. Like many of the best documentaries, it brings you so close to people in their unguarded moments that you marvel at the trust, or complicity, that grew between the filmmakers and their subjects. Unlike most, it shows some of these people wondering how the film has even come to exist—an inescapable question, given that the intrusion into its chosen candidate’s life is extreme, and the candidate’s urge to self-broadcast has led to his extremity.
“Shit. This is the worst: doing a documentary on my scandal,” mutters Anthony Weiner—seven-time US congressman, two-time New York mayoral candidate, and twice-exposed enthusiast of cell-phone flirtation—as seen at the beginning of Weiner. At the conclusion, after this second mayoral bid has ended in humiliation, an off-camera Josh Kriegman (who codirected with Elyse Steinberg) rounds out the theme by asking the obvious: “Why have you let me film this?”
“This” amounts to everything: from Weiner’s home life and the boisterous early days of his 2013 campaign (before the emergence of another round of cybersex messages) to his sudden drop into an abyss of shame and mockery. You see it all: the behind-the-scenes maneuvering of his increasingly grim staff, Weiner’s principled (or perhaps near-delusional) determination to press on, and the cold fury of his wife—the poised, beautiful, and highly accomplished political operative Huma Abedin—who can neither abide the public role into which she’s been thrust nor fully evade it, and so takes to standing silently in doorways, staring darkly at her husband with a downward gaze while clutching her elbows as if they were weapons that needed to be kept in check.
Past a certain point, why didn’t Weiner send Kriegman and Steinberg packing? Why didn’t he at least limit what they could film? (Not only did they go on recording the campaign team in its dismal flailing, but they also continued to have access to the family’s apartment, where they could wait in the kitchen to ask Abedin how she felt as she came in for breakfast. “Living in a nightmare,” she says.) Fairly early in the movie, in a scene shot on the street, a curious passerby asks Weiner “Why are they filming you?” and gets this reply: “Most of the time, I don’t know.” At the end, confronted by the riddle of his cooperation, he still has no answer.
So it’s up to you to make the connections—although Weiner, being sharp-tongued and contentious but also smart and not without self-knowledge—does offer some reflections. During a quiet moment, he speaks about the “superficial and transactional” relationships that politicians enter into, which might give rise to a habit of sexting, he says speculatively, or perhaps could be the very reason that an emotionally needy person goes into politics in the first place. In the film’s most buoyant scenes, you get plenty of evidence to back up the latter theory. Kriegman and Steinberg show the former congressman as a natural politician—the opposite, you might say, of Abedin’s boss, Hillary Clinton. Weiner enjoys nothing more than waving giant flags from atop parade floats, except for bounding off those floats so he can hug random onlookers. This lean-framed man comes off as someone who lives on adrenaline boosted from strangers. If they cheer, great; if they jeer, he still gets the rush. If he catches a group’s ear in public, he can promote his policies (many of which might appeal to Nation readers). If he engages a female voter singly, in the pseudo-privacy of the digital realm, he can advance his more corporeal agenda.