Media pundits often state that Americans like to forgive our disgraced public figures after enough time has passed. It seems that if hazed celebrities or politicians suffer mightily enough and throw in a contrite apology for good measure, redemption (and marketability) awaits. Comeback stories sell just as well as tragic downfalls, it seems.
The engaging and insightful political documentary Weiner, which traces the 2013 New York City mayoral bid of ex-Congressman and sexting pariah Anthony Weiner, complicates these broader assumptions about life after scandal. Given incredible behind-the-scenes access to both the Weiner campaign and household, co-directors Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman watch as the candidate's hopes for a reputable future get derailed by unresolved character flaws and past indiscretions. His social media sins never really go away, no matter how much professional triage has taken place, hinting at a modern cycle of shame that is only a mistaken mouse click away.
Weiner begins and ends with befuddlement. During the opening scene, Weiner himself sits firmly in front of the camera waiting to answer questions in talking head fashion, muttering about what a mistake it was to let a film crew follow his every move. During the pivotal final scene, one of the directors asks Weiner, "Why have you let me film this?" There are no answers given to either moment, but the meat of this political documentary raises numerous more questions about the divide between public and private space, media speculation and moral hypocrisy.
Unlike few recent documentaries, Weiner thrives on its stirring editing scheme, seamlessly merging action-driven B-roll footage with interviews and palpable cinema verité. A scathing prologue montage depicts Weiner's fiery brand of oration on the floor of the House of Representatives and overall combative personality. Then come the compromising pictures accidentally released on Twitter that derail his professional ascent and draw judgmental ire from both sides of the political aisle.
Two years later, Weiner decides to launch his mayoral campaign with the help of his wife Huma Abedin (a confidant and aide to Hillary Clinton) and dedicated young staff. It all begins promisingly enough with momentum in the polls. One particularly dynamic montage paced to Kiss' "New York Groove" reminds how much fervor Weiner manages to create in the voters if allowed to speak on topic.
But if the film teaches us anything, it's that fate's pendulum never stops swinging for long. New allegations and photos are released at the height of the election cycle, sending Weiner's political and personal life into a tailspin. Thankfully, the film doesn't paint its primary subject as a victim. It's painfully aware, as is the viewer, that Weiner's arrogance and denial have created this suffocating situation. His patronizing comments to staffers and his wife don't make him any more likable.
As it evolves into a portrait of emotional meltdown, Weiner becomes more about the ripple effect of shame rather than personal regret. This is embodied most through Abedin's disintegrating patience and faith in her husband on all levels. The camera captures more than one uncomfortable moment between the couple that escalates slowly and over time. It's a raw and unflinching depiction of infidelity primarily because there is no end in sight to the ongoing personal and public embarrassment, especially for Abedin.
In this sense, the film rightfully dismantles the notion that politicians (or any public figure) can smile their way into a second chance. But who has the right to make these kinds of judgment? Is it the press that feeds off every salacious detail? Or is it the power-hungry political rivals who smell blood in the water? What about the general public, whom the film portrays as equally supportive and disdainful of Weiner?
The answer is none of the above. Abedin's perspective matters most, and the film powerfully reveals how political elitists, media commentators and even Weiner himself continue to deny her the right to steer this narrative in a new direction. The betrayal never ends.