Fallen US congressmen Anthony Weiner is more known outside of the States than he’d like to be – because his fame has nothing to do with his actual politics.
That’s the way things go when you get repeatedly busted for sending explicit texts and photographs to women who aren’t your wife. And when you have a funny name that headline writers will never, ever tire of or run out of puns for.
Weiner (a documentary directed and produced by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg) picks up in 2013 – two years after the congressman’s initial sexting scandal forced his resignation. At this point, Weiner’s marriage has survived, and he and his wife Huma Abedin – and the child she was pregnant with at the time of the scandal – are on the cusp of being thrust back into the limelight as Weiner announces his candidacy for mayor of New York.
Even without knowing anything about Weiner or what happened with his campaign, viewers can tell from the outset that things aren’t going to end well. The opening scene shows us a tired-looking Weiner saying, almost to himself, “Shit. This is the worst. This is the worst. Doing a documentary on my scandal…” He then cuts himself off and answers the phone with a much cheerier, “Hello!”
Incredibly, this spectacular trainwreck lives on beyond the movie. Just a couple of days before ACMI launched its theatrical season of Weiner (and two years after the documentary is set) a third sexting scandal has broken. In short, there is no better time to watch this movie than right now.
James Hewison, head of film programs at ACMI, describes Weiner as “an exercise in relentless self-belief”. From the start, viewers are shown the blurred line between public and private that exists for Weiner. The documentary crew is allowed an almost unbelievable amount of access as the film morphs from a tale of personal and career redemption to the sensational implosion of a political campaign in the wake of the second sexting scandal.
Perhaps it’s because one half of the duo behind the documentary is Kriegman, who prior to the film had worked with Weiner as his chief of staff. However, this feels like too simple an answer. Weiner seems to take a masochistic delight in purging himself as the camera rolls.
Take the scene in which he practises his apology before a press conference. Or the fact that the documentary crew is privy to the nickname “Pineapple” that Weiner’s team has given to one of his sexting partners, Sydney Leathers. At one point, Weiner watches his own television interview again and again, prompting Hewison to wonder that he’s “like a kid watching television for the first time. He is utterly besotted and mesmerised by his own image”.
In strong contrast is Weiner’s wife, Abedin, who has her own political career as one of Hillary Clinton’s closest advisors. Abedin is often shown in the background looking progressively more distressed and ashamed as the situation progresses.
As a politician, Weiner surely knows that releasing all this into the public domain is not smart. However, given the nature of the scandals that keep taking him down, he may struggle with drawing that line between what’s appropriate and what’s not. At one point even the cameraman breaks from the role of silent observer to ask why he is being allowed to film this. Weiner isn’t able to offer a good answer.
Weiner is a case study in how the private life of a politician impacts upon a constituency’s willingness to trust in the professional ability of the elected. As Weiner himself says in the opening scene, “I guess the punchline is true about me. I did the things. But I did a lot of other things too.”
Hewison is enthusiastic about the conversations Weiner will trigger for viewers. “I guess the film is an open invitation for many things, and one of them at the very least is speculation. As they say, there are three forms of truth: there’s my version, your version, and what actually happened.”
Weiner is now screening at ACMI for a limited season. There will be a special screening at 6pm on Saturday September 3, followed by a Q&A with Australian Greens MP Adam Bandt. See all session times and book tickets here.