Every time political junkies think the Anthony Weiner saga is over, the embattled Democrat seems to re-emerge. This weekend he will be making his debut as a movie star — at the center of a critically acclaimed new documentary that opens Friday, aptly named “Weiner.”
The film largely focuses on Weiner’s train-wreck 2013 New York City mayoral campaign, which was derailed after several illicit photos and text messages between the former congressman and numerous women outside of his marriage emerged. For those who felt a sense of déjà vu, it was justified: A prior sexting scandal back in 2011 forced Weiner to first abandon what looked to be a promising career as a lawmaker.
Although Weiner gets top billing and the title, it’s actually Huma Abedin, his wife and “the right hand woman of Hillary Clinton,” who is the breakout star of the film — or at the very least, the source of the most intrigue. The longtime political aide’s stalwart support for her husband (the 2011 scandal broke while she was pregnant with their first child) has mystified and fascinated many, but those searching for a definitive answer to the question “why?” may be left disappointed.
Instead, audiences will get a candid glimpse into the lives of a man who feels compelled to seek the mayoralty despite an 80 percent disapproval rating and a woman who has to, in her words, live through a daily “nightmare” because of it.
Weiner — who, in the film, is called everything from a “preening self-promoter” to a “glib narcissist” — manages to remain affable in the face of insults but also remarkably oblivious to the consequences of his own behavior. Abedin, on the other hand, earns considerable audience sympathy as a relatively shy and put-upon woman (frequent “Morning Joe” guest Mike Barnicle calls her a “victim of spousal abuse”) whose default facial expression with arms folded evokes exasperated regret. Adding to the tension are the film’s crew, who appear to have an incredible degree of access. The one notable exception is a painful scene prior to Weiner’s infamous press conference where he admitted to the public that he continued to send inappropriate texts and photos after his 2011 resignation.
What follows now plays like a greatest-hits collection of a high stakes debacle: There’s Weiner’s unintentionally comical pseudonym of “Carlos Danger,” his uncomfortable inability to provide the press with a specific number of women he sexted, the porn film starring his five-times-a-day sexting partner Sydney Leathers and his combative “what is wrong with you?” appearance on MSNBC’s “The Last Word.”
But this film also brings new elements of his campaign to light. We see the anguish of his staff, who appear blindsided by the emergence of new salacious photos and messages from Weiner. We see the desperate lengths Weiner had to go through to avoid a public ambush from Leathers. And in perhaps the film’s most compelling moments, we see frequent shots of Abedin, often hovering quietly in the corner of the room, occasionally trying to offer sage advice to her husband.
Lurking in the corners of the frame is an unanswered question: Why would Weiner and Abedin subject themselves to a resurrection of their devastating public humiliation all over again and in the midst of her political benefactor’s campaign for the presidency?
Hillary Clinton, who has said if she’d had a second daughter it would be Abedin, is already in the midst of a highly personal, nasty campaign. Her Republican rival Donald Trump, who appears in the film in a web video calling Weiner a “pervert,” has accused the former secretary of state of being an “enabler” of her own husband’s infidelities and inappropriate behavior with women. Trump has also appeared to make similar claims about Abedin, attacking her for marrying a “sleazebag” and implying that she may have shared classified intel with her husband.
In a way, the film “Weiner” could stand as a spirited defense against Trump’s assertions. The film could be summed up best by one scene: After Weiner makes a fool of himself on “The Last Word,” he watches the clip and cackles with amusement. Meanwhile, a mortified Abedin has to leave the room. Weiner doesn’t leave to comfort her — instead, as he keeps watching the footage, nothing seems to appeal to him more than himself. Viewers seeking evidence of Abedin’s complicity in Weiner’s antics will struggle to find it.
The film, besides being an often comical look at modern-day political hedonism, also stands as a stark reminder that real, flawed human beings are a part of the electoral process, and there is a legitimate discussion to be had about the extent to which a person’s private life warrants scrutiny from voters. Of course, Weiner, with his penchant for self-destructive moves during his campaign’s inevitable death spiral and a vanity that appears to know no bounds, may not be the best vessel for that debate. But he — and his wife — sure make for entertaining film fodder.