Monday, August 15, 2016

"Weiner": review

Man, that was brutal. I cringed pretty much the whole way through "Weiner."*

"Weiner" is a documentary film by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg that chronicles the most painfully awkward moments of former Congressman Anthony Weiner's life. You may recall that Weiner used to be a member of the US House of Representatives for New York (9th District). A sexting (i.e., sexual text messaging) scandal erupted in 2011 when photos of Weiner's "bulging underwear" surfaced online and were spread all over social media. Weiner had apparently been sexting with around six women over the course of several years. Ultimately, he resigned from Congress, but in 2013, he resurfaced as a Democrat candidate for mayor in the 2013 New York City mayoral race. "Weiner" documents the ex-congressman's unsuccessful bid for mayor while a second sexting scandal erupts around him. As other reviewers have observed, one of the most incredible points to note is that the documentary team was still allowed to film everything even as Weiner was imploding a second time.

The documentary gives us a good look at Weiner's personality, which is a weird-but-compelling mixture of pugnacity and smarts. Weiner is a passionate debater on the floor; he can be arrogant and cold, but off the floor, he can also be self-deprecating and caring. In person in a public forum, he can be amazingly charismatic. In a sequence that happens later in the film, Weiner is shown campaigning in front of a crowd that initially wants him just to go home; through a combination of brutal self-honesty and humor, Weiner ends up winning the crowd over, and people are loudly applauding and cheering by the end. I was impressed, in spite of myself, by the man's drive and charisma.

The problem, of course, is that Weiner's drive and charisma are of a piece with his randy online behavior: the good and the bad both flow from the aphrodisiacal nature of power and celebrity, even if that celebrity counts as little more than infamy. The story of Anthony Weiner is, in many ways, the story of many men in positions of power and authority—men who end up abusing those things to take advantage of women, or of anyone in a weaker position. Weiner, as a married man with one child, caused plenty of collateral damage in his marriage; that damage spread even to his campaign staff, who had to deal with the fallout from Weiner's reckless behavior. Whom the gods destroy, first they make proud.

Weiner's wife is Huma Abedin, who works as one of Hillary Clinton's closest aides. Much of the documentary focuses, naturally, on her, but she tries her best to put up a brave front in the face of all this scandal. In one candid moment, she says her life is like "living a nightmare," but through it all, she elects—bizarrely, in my opinion—to stick by her husband's side and help him with his mayoral campaign. One newscaster is shown as saying that Huma is living in an abuse dynamic, making excuses for her unscrupulous husband. Others suspect that she is too attracted to power to let go of Anthony, but this explanation begs the question of how and why divorcing him would endanger her position at the side of Hillary Clinton (Mrs. Clinton is indirectly cited as quietly encouraging Huma to separate from Anthony).

Weiner's most candid moments come during formal sit-down sessions with the camera, much as happens during those "diary room" shots you see on reality-TV shows, where a reality contestant confesses his or her deepest, darkest feelings to the camera and straight to viewing audiences. Weiner is at his most candid—and, arguably, at his most eloquent—during these scenes. Externally, at least, he seems willing to take full responsibility not only for his misdeeds but also for the damage those deeds have done. At the same time, his actual pattern of behavior suggests that something pathological might be going on: he might claim to love his wife and child, but he seems willing to get right back into sexting. (Some time after this documentary had been released in theaters, Weiner was recently caught in yet another bout of sexting. Weiner claims to have been aware that his sexting partner was a "catfish," i.e., someone trying to entrap him, but the actual content of the sexting dialogue shows no such awareness. Weiner later bitterly blamed the media, Rupert Murdoch in particular, for trying to ensnare him.)

This was a painful documentary to watch, but it thoroughly engaged the rubbernecker's reflex, making it impossible to look away from the inexorably unfolding disaster. The film also raised as many questions as it answered. In particular: was it truly possible for a man as obviously intelligent as Anthony Weiner to be so consumed by lustful impulses that he would sabotage his career over and over again? I suspect that only a clinical explanation would suffice. The same could be said for long-suffering Huma, who comes off as a victim, but who makes the conscious decision to "stand by her man," to use the Patsy Cline lyric that Hillary Clinton mocked before her own husband's randiness became the top story of the day, for many days. (For what it's worth, I give Anthony Weiner more credit than I do Bill Clinton for actually fessing up and acknowledging responsibility for his actions.) Huma's case could be seen as a window into the mind of Hillary Clinton, an inveterate politician who undoubtedly weighed her options in considering what to do about Wild Bill vis-à-vis her own future.

As to the question of why Anthony Weiner allowed the documentarians to continue filming while all was collapsing around him, I suspect that this, too, was an ego-driven decision. On some animalistic level, Weiner (as he openly admits in the film, in reference to a basic desire of all politicians) craves attention, no matter what kind. Some of us are like that: ego-affirmation comes only through the reactions of others, be those reactions positive or negative. It's how we know we exist. Others of us have no such needs.

Weiner, the man, has had trouble finding and keeping work since his 2013 mayoral flameout. His most recent sexting scandal occurred while he was working as a consultant at a PR firm. His stint there lasted only two months. "Weiner," the film, is hard to sit through, but I highly recommend the harsh light it shines on a riveting person, and on the damage that that person did—and probably still does—to the people around him.

*Disdaining Germanic rules of pronunciation, Weiner pronounces his name "wee-ner," not "vhy-nah." He could have cut the ridicule down by half simply by following German phonetics.

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