‘Weiner’ Is A Gripping Documentary About Getting The Politicians We Deserve

06.03.16 1 year ago 31 Comments

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Weiner would be valuable enough solely for serendipity, the kind of right time/right place documentary that only fate could’ve planned. For me and probably most non-New Yorkers, Anthony Weiner’s wiener scandal (I feel like this whole fiasco may have been avoided if only he’d just pronounced his name “Why-ner,” like every other Weiner I’ve ever met) was one of those stories I didn’t fully understand. I understood enough to get the jokes, but not enough to know why people were so angry. And just when the whole thing had finally died down, it turns out directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg had been there filming him the whole time. Talk about a hook. Finally, a chance for some perspective.

It turns out, Weiner is about a lot more than serendipity. I went in expecting to see a movie that explained what’s wrong with Anthony Weiner and instead saw a movie about our fickle and shifting expectations of politicians.

Even if you think he’s a monster, Anthony Weiner seems to be exactly the kind of monster our political system creates — the sort of needy attention whore you have to be if you want to succeed. The qualities for which people come to hate him — passion, theatricality, a desperate need for both attention and having the last word — are exactly what made him popular in the first place. And eventually the public abandons him in favor of exactly the kind of dull milquetoast he was supposed to be the antidote to (or at least that’s how the movie depicts it). Who’s the star of the Greek tragedy here, Anthony Weiner or the people of New York?

The film opens with the famous YouTube clip of Anthony Weiner grandstanding, with near psychotic intensity, on the floor of Congress, over Republicans refusing to vote on a bill to fund healthcare for 9/11 first responders. The Republicans try to shout him down, and it just pisses him off even more. It’s like a scene from Crimson Tide. We see politicians in other countries looking this passionate, but rarely ours. Finally! We think. A liberal who fights back! We’d become so accustomed to hectoring sacks of oatmeal like Joe Lieberman that it was almost a religious experience seeing someone with some blood in his veins. It makes him a star. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he’s married to Huma Abedin, a Clinton campaign strategist so indispensable that Hillary Clinton calls her a second daughter.

And then he accidentally tweets a picture of his embonered underpants, and it all goes down in flames. He resigns in disgrace, because we can’t very well have our political leaders having boners, and sending pictures of their boners, and having names synonymous with boners, now can we?

Weiner has already encapsulated the inherent hypocrisy of politics, and that’s just the prologue. We want our politicians to be vibrant and sexy and the good ones naturally feed on that. But if they ever reveal the sexual pleasure they derive from the political stage, they’re ruined. Is Weiner’s sin deviancy or just bad bullsh*tting? Thomas Jefferson owned human chattel while writing “all men are created equal,” but he also never accidentally tweeted some naked pictures of his slaves in the middle of the Continental Congress. Then again, it’s not as if Anthony Weiner campaigned on a platform of outlawing dick pics, or understanding Twitter.

The non-flashback portion of Weiner begins with Anthony Weiner’s comeback bid, a run for the mayorship of New York. It’s also a revealing look at the nuts and bolts of a political campaign, which mostly seems to involve checking polls and cold calling rich people to beg for money. Before you can whore yourself out to the voters, you have to whore yourself out for the money you need to get in front of the voters.

At first, things go well. Shockingly well. Restoring-your-faith-in-humanity well. Weiner wants to take responsibility, and he seems genuine. About the sexting, he says, “Well, I did the thing,” which becomes an unlikely, but straightforward mantra. And New Yorkers seem ready to forgive him. “Anthony Weiner! That’s my man right there!” shouts a random passerby as a crowd swarms him on the street.

“Man, they all fulla sh*t,” says another, waving dismissively and moving on.

The question of whether the second comment is a rejection or an endorsement goes to the heart of modern politics. (In either case, Weiner‘s use of crowd reaction shots is excellent.)

At a public debate, another candidate tries to bring up Anthony Weiner’s “values.” It’s scummy, and the crowd boos him! They actually shout him down and the politicians have to move on to, you know, talking about actual issues and stuff. It’s enough to warm your heart.

But it doesn’t last. Because just when the public seems ready to move on and Anthony Weiner is rising in the polls (illustrated by a jaunty, kissin’-hands-and-shakin’-babies montage set to “New York Groove” — a little on the nose, but a great montage song), the world discovers “Sydney Leathers,” and “Carlos Danger,” and more pics Anthony Weiner sent from the congressional gym shower, and blah blah blah.

Weiner’s polls take a nosedive, and this is the part that’s baffling to me: You already knew this dude liked to sext strangers. How does knowing he sent chode pics to more than one internet lady somehow change your opinion of him? He lied about how many dick pics he sent! He lied about when he sent the dick pics! He sent dick pics even after he got caught sending dick picks! He sent dick pics from places we didn’t know that he sent dick pics from before!

I understand why it became a news story that wouldn’t go away, because of the undeniable SEO value of “dick pics,” and the “Carlos Danger” coda just made it a search term again. At one point during Weiner, a scummy New York Post reporter even asks him if he has a favorite Post headline. (You might be shocked to learn how many interview questions boil down to the interviewer asking the subject Can you please validate me? Tell me I’m good).

Weiner tries to steer the conversation, to control the damage, but things just get worse and worse. Aside from the Shakespearian angle, where pride leads to a fall, surely there must be a lesson about damage control to be learned here. Was he not open enough about the dick pics when he apologized the first time? Should he have just volunteered more information about the dick pics? Are the people angry at Anthony Weiner for the dick pics, or just angry that their election has become a circus?

Hard to say, but the righteous indignation starts to become self-sustaining. Anger over his sexting turns to anger over his lies (I guess?) turns to anger that he won’t drop out of the race. This all culminates in a difficult-to-watch interview with MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, an empty blazer with a haircut in the classic cable news mold, who just asks, over and over, “What is wrong with you?”

O’Donnell, clearly believing he’s speaking for the populace, wants to know what kind of crazy person would keep running for public office. All while illustrating exactly why a person would have to be crazy to run for office. I mean is fame and the opportunity to influence public policy really worth being pop psychologized by some smug, eel-skinned man-bot on national television? It wouldn’t be for me. Willingly bringing it on yourself seems like it would require a serious kink.

The beauty of Weiner is that it shows us exactly the kind of person it would be worth it for, in the very next scene. Anthony Weiner’s wife, who can barely stand to look at the video, tries to pry Weiner away from his computer, where he’s been watching the interview over and over. Abedin, as our stand-in, leaves the room shaking her head, seeming to wonder what kind of person is this?

And again I would point out, this is exactly the same guy you liked in the first place. He’s the guy who refuses to be shouted down, who desperately needs to have the last word. If he didn’t back down when Republicans wouldn’t fund healthcare for 9/11 first responders, why would he disappear because of Sydney Leathers? Why would he let a random heckler in a bagel shop get the last word? Why can’t he let go? Watch the goddamned video that made you love him in the first place again, that’s why he can’t let go — he’s the guy who can’t let go! He’s lives to grandstand.

Throughout it all, the one strand of the Anthony Weiner story that remains utterly inscrutable is his marriage. Whereas he’s a pathological oversharer, Abedin doesn’t drop her guard or lose her polish for a second. Cagey poise seems to be her only speed. I still know nothing about her. Maybe she should be the one running for office. Trouble is, she wouldn’t. Because she doesn’t seem to have the disease that makes a person want to.

Meanwhile, in the waning days of the campaign, news stories abound about Hillary Clinton trying to force Abedin to choose between keeping her job with Clinton and staying with her political liability husband. Weiner implies that the story is true without ever quite coming out and saying it. I don’t think we have to bring up Hillary Clinton’s past to point out that there are enough strands of hypocrisy here to make a French braid.

Weiner is a brilliant watch because it tells a story that’s a tragedy on so many levels. And it’s one that’s still ongoing. In a story about the fickleness of public opinion, even our takeaway from it seems to be wrong.

Vanity Fair:

What’s Wrong with Anthony Weiner? We Asked Some Psychotherapists. Experts weigh in on the real reason the sexting is so disturbing.

Disturbing to whom? Are we trying to elect policy makers or surrogate dads? I’ll tell you what’s wrong with him: he’s a politician. Anyone who’s willing to put himself through this moron circus just for a little love and fame is dangerously in love with love and fame. If this is the way our political system works, a guy who sends dick pics is the least of our worries.

Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.

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