"Weiner" contains many illuminating moments about former congressman Anthony Weiner's failed mayoral campaign, but nothing tops the scene in which it all comes crashing down. Shortly after he realizes that he's facing more evidence of his online sexting antics, he summarizes the situation in blunt terms: "Fuck."
Then the camera sits there for 15 interminable seconds, watching Weiner alongside his clearly infuriated wife and counsel Huma Abedin, as they process the situation without saying a word. Co-directed by former Weiner chief of staff Josh Kriegman with Elyse Steinberg, "Weiner" confronts all the remarkable tension implied by that silence. Given extraordinary access to Weiner's ambitious gamble to relaunch his career, presumably anticipating that things would play out differently, the filmmakers have instead provided a brilliant window into the impact of the contemporary media circus on public life. While not exactly a figure of sympathy — he lied, after all, more than once — Weiner nevertheless maintains the charisma and drive to provide the movie with one of the most compelling anti-heroes in recent memory.
While "Weiner" follows its titular subject around for most of the running time, Abedin emerges as the chief victim of his second downfall. Often seen at the sidelines, the woman best known as Hillary Clinton's closest confidante inhabits the audience's perspective as a witness to utter failure. But for her, it's personal.
The angle of the story writes itself, but the directors take nothing for granted, fleshing out Weiner's initial resignation from office in the opening minutes with a swiftly engaging montage. Weiner's oratorial strengths are evident in his numerous stump speeches before Congress, where his heated debates about low income assistance, Obamacare and countless other topics make a strong case for his qualifications. These details set the stage for the way in which they're all relegated to the background once news of Weiner's online persona "Carlos Danger" takes over the headlines. Weiner screwed up, but it's hard not to feel bad for him as he keeps at it against impossible odds. But Abedin stands there as a reminder that he's not the whole show.
In the midst of this central conundrum, Kriegman and Steinberg pair Weiner's desperate calls with staff and evasive press conferences with hectic reports by every facet of the media. The subject of one New York Post headline after another, Weiner's situation would seem humiliating if he weren't constantly seen trying to deny its debilitating impact. Unable to discuss any other topic with the press, he winds up regularly digging himself a deeper hole.
The result is a dramatically compelling saga rife with urgency, but it often pitches into the realm of a black comedy. On election day, as Weiner's prospects dry up once and for all, he wolfes down a cheeseburger and fries to bury his sorrows; when Sydney Leathers, the would-be porn star who was among Weiner's online fixations — she's been given the code name "Pineapple" by his staffers — tries to confront him at his concession speech, he frantically sprints through the backdoor of a McDonalds. Moment by moment, "Weiner" chronicles the chaotic odyssey of the seven-term former congressman with a pileup of absurd details.
At the same time, the filmmakers effectively track Weiner's initial comeback story. Early on, he's seen leading a parade with fanfare coming from every direction, while Bill de Blasio's team trails quietly behind. Setting up shop with Abedin in a ramshackle space, the team slowly builds, set to the tune of "New York Groove." Weiner capably juggles questions about his past with a galvanizing image of New York's future, at one point riding the subway and engaging with locals reading news of his surging polls. The sense of excitement in the first act intensifies the stinging defeat that follows.
Even as Weiner faces an endless parade of interviewers dwelling on his "partners in sin," he's the movie's only real talking head. Despite his tempestuous relationship with confrontational news anchors, he's fairly upfront with his directors. "I guess the punchline about me is true," he concludes. Elsewhere, Kriegman and Steinberg chronicle the diverse impact of Weiner's transgressions as they reverberate throughout the city. "We're from the Bronx, we don't care about this personal garbage," shouts one local as Weiner holds a press conference on the street. But a testy Citi Island crowd feels different. As Weiner starts to melt under pressure, his attempts at resilience grow increasingly pathetic.
Abedin, however, does not. Often seen staring up at him during his most awful moments, she gradually turns into the movie's only source of sanity as he runs out of options. "Why are you laughing?" she asks him as he checks out a viral clip of his fiery exchange with an MSNBC host. "This is crazy." While "Weiner" is a tragedy for its subject, Abedin is the closest thing to its voice of reason.
Though not precisely about his platforms, the documentary offers a mesmerizing look at what it means to lose control of a carefully developed narrative. Desperately hoping to discuss his politics, Weiner instead gets sucked into a grotesque black hole of his own design. An opening quote from Marshall McLuhan puts it best: "The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers." Weiner, however, recovery becomes his perpetual goal. A credits sequence tracks his continuing life in the public eye, making it clear that even if he resents the media's tendency toward simplification, some part of him thrives on the attention.
With its ringside seat to a Shakespearean fall from grace, "Weiner" easily stands out as the paragon of its genre. For decades, the 1960 Kennedy-Humphrey portrait "Primary" set the high bar for documentaries about political campaigns, but "Weiner" rises above it. Although not explicitly about real political action, the capacity for genuine leadership to get hijacked by scandal is a powerful idea in its own right. Weiner certainly screwed up, but the media didn't fare much better.
"Weiner" premiered this weekend at the Sundance Film Festival. Sundance Selects will release the film in theaters and VOD on May 20 followed by a television broadcast on Showtime in the fall.