In June 2011 Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner tweeted a picture of his bulging crotch from his official Twitter account. The scandal that followed which revealed numerous online interactions of a sexual nature with several different women, caused Anthony to resign, disgraced, from Congress. In 2013 Anthony made an unexpected return to the spotlight when he announced he would run for Mayor of New York. Weiner traces Anthony’s unsuccessful mayoral bid as fresh scandal dismantles the campaign.
Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s Weiner grants unprecedented access behind the scenes of Anthony’s 2013 mayoral campaign. The film insightfully captures the controlled chaos that exists in temporary office spaces, the scrambling for financial investment and the often bizarre circus of the campaign trail. But perhaps more interestingly, we witness in extreme proximity a campaign team in crisis as further scandal strikes mid race. Weiner finds a great deal of its humour in the crisis management we see played out on screen. It possesses more than a hint of political farce as in several The Thick of It-esque scenes we see Anthony taking calls with his head on the desk or practising how best to pronounce ‘I am profoundly sorry.’
Part of what makes Weiner so simultaneously compelling and uncomfortable to watch is that it’s central character is such a strange amalgamation of virtue and vice. Our perspective on Anthony is constantly shifting. The film showcases qualities that both attract and repel us. Anthony is a great political talent. He was the youngest member of the New York City council in history, and was viewed as a real rising star in the Democratic Party. He is a charismatic and gifted orator determined to effect real political change. And yet the portrait Weiner builds inspires us to question the cause of this determination. Is it instead rooted in Anthony’s narcissism, egoism or delusion? Anthony’s compulsive self-sabotage and insistence on occupying the spotlight makes watching Weiner like watching a car crash you cannot quite tear your eyes from.
Weiner post #MeToo is a decidedly different experience to my first viewing in 2016. A depressingly ironic reminder of the times we now live in enters the film in the form of Donald Trump’s statement on the scandal; ‘We don’t want perverts elected in New York’ (but in Washington it’s fine right?) On second viewing I found myself more intently focused on the scandal itself and particularly its representation in the Media. In so many ways the scandal is the perfect news item. It concerns the sex life not only of a public figure, but the kind of public figure that we reserve a particular disdain and scrutiny for, the politician. The story satisfies both our appetite for the titillating and our insatiable desire to see those who claim to be in some way morally or intellectually superior to us dragged through the mud.
The Media’s portrayal of Anthony documented by Kriegman and Steinberg inspires a consideration of the strange position that sex occupies in our society. The visibility of sex in modern culture could be seen as representative of sexual liberation. And yet sex appears again and again closely tied to feelings of shame. The Press’ treatment of Anthony’s scandal is a powerful example of how the Media acts as a key enforcer of this shame, violently dictating what expressions of sexuality are acceptable. The pleasure the Media takes in portraying Anthony as ‘disgusting’ and ‘perverted’ appear to me as incongruous with his behaviour. I absolutely agree that the Anthony’s betrayal of the trust of his wife, son, and the voters is deplorable. But I struggle to apply this same judgement to the acts themselves, which exist only online between consenting adults. To criticise the Media’s coverage is not however to absolve Anthony. It merely articulates the film’s interesting portrayal of a deeply flawed man and a distinctly flawed conservative press. I left this film feeling surprisingly unsure of where I stood on Anthony’s behaviour. Perhaps it is an achievement of Weiner that I felt this way, or perhaps I too found myself caught up in Anthony’s spin.
An aspect of Weiner that inspires this kind of thought is its concern with the private and personal. Through this film we discover what is at stake beneath the headlines, namely Anthony’s relationship with his wife their baby son. Weiner has astonishing access to the couple’s private life. We witness a marriage under intense strain and public scrutiny. Anthony’s wife Huma (long-term aid to Hilary Clinton) is incredibly intelligent, poised and stunning beautiful. She is a fascinating enigmatic presence. In a memorable scene following the second wave of scandal we find Huma impeccably dressed preparing breakfast for her son in a sleek and modern kitchen. Josh asks her how she is feeling to which she replies ‘its like being in a nightmare.’ Huma’s words said without emotion, juxtaposed against her manicured appearance and surroundings make for a very poignant moment.
When I think about Weiner something I keep coming back to is why. Why did Anthony allow this documentary such invasive access to the scandal in 2013? Why didn’t Huma leave Anthony? And ultimately why did Anthony do it? Weiner does not give us final answers to these questions. We certainly approach answers, but the film gives us space to make our own judgement. Personally, I like to think of Anthony Weiner as a tragic hero of the classical kind. A man of real talent with a fatal flaw, unable to escape the destiny of his name: Weiner.
The questions raised by this film perhaps find more concrete answers in the press of recent times. In 2016 Huma left Anthony following even more revelations of sexual interactions with women on the Internet. In May of 2017 Anthony was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison for transferring obscene material to a minor. Despite these developments I would encourage you to think and watch this film with an awareness of what it is: A powerful record of 2013 and a study of Anthony, his family, and the Media at that time.
Where can you find it?
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