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Still from 'Weiner'.

Politics Exposed: Weiner

8 July 2016 Nick Chen

When Anthony Weiner asked Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg to document his 2013 New York mayoral campaign, it was supposed to be a redemption story: how one man, befallen by a sexting scandal, clawed his way back to the top. What Weiner captures instead is the humiliation of a man caught twice with his pants down, along with a media circus more interested in his private life than his political aspirations.

A quick recap. In 2011, Anthony Weiner tried to privately message a salacious picture (a shapely snapshot of his boxers, if you must know) to a female Twitter follower, but by accident he posted the image onto his public feed. Not only was his inability to use social media embarrassing, the subsequent investigation revealed similar exchanges with other women, and he was forced to resign from Congress. With a surname like that, the jokes wrote themselves.
 
That’s where Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg came in. After two patient years waiting for the scandal to subside, Weiner entered the elections to be mayor of New York. This was to be a political arc so spectacular, he needed filmmakers to be present. And thus Weiner came into fruition. “Six weeks in,” Steinberg recalls, “he was top of the polls. He defied all expectations. People thought it was a joke for him to even enter the race, and we thought we would have one of the greatest comeback stories in recent American political history. And then things took an unexpected turn.”
 
Shortly after, Weiner was caught in another sexting incident, this time sending photos of his private parts to a Vegas blackjack dealer under the online alias of “Carlos Danger”. From that point on, the campaign was doomed, and to make matters worse, Kriegman and Steinberg were in his office when the news broke. Kriegman summarises it neatly: “He got into the mayor’s race hoping to get past the scandal and that he was talked about in a way that would allow people to see him again as a politician. Obviously it didn’t work out that way.”
 
Despite Weiner’s reputation as a scrappy fighter and passionate politician, his libido is shown to be an unavoidable hurdle. While the film isn’t judgemental, it can’t help but point out the absurdity of someone’s career tarnished by personal matters. Significantly, his wife, Huma Abedin, who’s also Hillary Clinton’s long-term aide, sticks by him throughout both scandals. Later on, with marital tensions heating up, Huma reads a newspaper rumour that to continue working with Hillary, she’d have to divorce her husband. Astonishingly, the camera’s still rolling.
 
Kriegman spent several years as Weiner’s political consultant before entering filmmaking, and it was this relationship that led to Weiner. “If he wanted me to turn off the camera or leave the room, that was of course a boundary that I would respect. You see a couple moments like that throughout the film.” This level of trust also explains why certain questions from behind the camera sound like taunts – at one point, Weiner complains that for a fly-on-the-wall format to work, the fly should stay silent. Later, when Kriegman asks Weiner why he’s allowed the documentary to continue, it’s edited like a cruel punchline.
 
“That’s right,” says Steinberg. “This question about: ‘How did this film exist?’ It was something we wondered about and we knew audiences would be wondering about it. It’s a question that we posed to Anthony. He answers at the end that he didn’t regret letting us film him, but he hoped that he’d be seen as a full person.” She believes the second scandal actually increased Weiner’s enthusiasm for the film. “He just became such a caricature, and we were able to show the human story behind it all.”
 
In that sense, the film succeeds. Weiner is seen at home in casual clothes, eating cereal and stroking a cat, like any ordinary person – except he’s watching video footage of himself yelling at a political pundit from the night before. Huma is horrified; he’s so lost in a Sisyphean battle with the media, he’s howling uncontrollably at his own PR disaster. To be fair, it’s a very human reaction.
Kriegman insists their intentions were positive. “We see him as a really complex person who has flaws that we’re all well aware of, but also has incredible talents and strengths. Certainly when I was working for him, I saw him as a really multifaceted, dynamic human being who’s incredibly smart and funny and driven.”
 
Reporters, on the other hand, come off poorly. When Weiner speaks to New Yorkers about how he would address their day-to-day issues, he’s interrupted by TV crews who repeatedly ask the same questions about his sex life. Similarly, Huma is dragged into the headlines by journalists. “She was reduced and judged just as much as him,” Steinberg notes, “and in some cases even more. You see that judgement against her, the way she was criticised for staying in the marriage. Our hope with this film is to question those judgements and go beyond them.”
 
Weiner’s release is timely. If Hillary is elected President, Huma will be a powerful figure in world politics who could regret her participation with the film. Her role for Hillary involves shying away from microphones and cameras, but now with Weiner, there’s home footage to scrutinise. “She was in Anthony’s ad when he was running for campaign,” Steinberg counters. “Why did she allow us to film? I can’t speak for her, but I do think, while she is quieter and more reserved, she shares his desire for wanting a fairer and more complete story told.”
 
Kriegman offers an update on how the couple’s roles have since changed. “He’s still a pundit, doing a little bit on TV and elsewhere, but he’s largely doing the lion share of parenting, while Huma is now the vice chairwoman of Hillary’s campaign.” Tellingly, Weiner refuses to see the film. “We offered to show it to him many, many months ago before the film was even finished. He didn’t want to see it. He declined to watch it then, and he hasn’t wanted to watch it since. He said he’s eager not to relive it.” And with that, Weiner has a stamp of approval from the man himself – the film not only digs deeply into his past embarrassment, it uncovers it too well.
 
Weiner opens in UK cinemas today.

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