The Anthony Weiner Story
Weiner is a documentary that follows Anthony Weiner on his failed bid to become the democratic mayoral candidate of New York City. The film premiered at Sundance this past January, and began showing at various independent theaters this summer. Viewed upon the backdrop of the 2016 campaign season that could be alternatively titled Celebrity Public Servant, it is an excellent and thought-provoking watch. Weiner the documentary uses Weiner the man to pose a larger question as to whether the expectations we have of our politicians are at odds with the personality traits that drive someone to become a politician in today’s totally bonkers world.
Politicians aren’t just public servants. They’re also local, state, and federal celebrities and have to develop a public persona in order to win elections. While this has been true to an extent since 1776, our access to them and to their flounders has increased with each passing year of smartphone and social media adoption, profoundly affecting the degree to which a politician now has to play a part.
With a brief nod of respect towards Anthony’s pdp (pre dick pic) career, the film begins showing CSPAN footage of a political high note for Anthony, as he crusades to obtain health care for 9/11 safety workers in congress. He slams his fist down at the partisan blockers that are preventing common-sense legislation from getting through and the internet erupts in proverbial cheers. Fastforward the 4 stages of a political scandal…
- Scandal emerges (source likely related to politicians’s social media account)
- Politician vehemently denies involvement
- The media with a capital M and social media latch onto the story, prompting countless late night show jokes and cable show commentators acting out outrage
- The politician makes a public apology and fades into the background as another scandal takes place
… and we arrive in summer 2013, where the film begins, and Anthony is poised to win the democratic nomination for New York City mayor. One can only assume that at this point, the documentary was pitched to Weiner as a redemption film: a chance to rewrite his narrative.
The storytelling is smart, and balances the right amount of allusions to Shakespearean tragedies and parallels to the Clinton politi-drama-romance, without becoming overly allegorical. Anthony’s wife and longtime Clinton-aide, Huma, plays the tightlipped goodwife to a tee. She is media-smart enough to say nothing of consequence on film, opting for long awkward pauses over revealing verbal arguments in the tense moments. Her own characteristics play perfectly into the film’s commentary: her caution and noticeable lack of interview footage remind viewers that she’s a staffer, and not a politician trying to win people over. She’s the fascinating one, but she’s way too cool to let us in so easily.
Juxtaposed with his wife, Anthony is often caught revealing too much in front of the camera. He works out half-truths he told the media with his comms director in the car, he lets us in to a couple deep introspective moments in his portait-style interviews, and he treats a truly unappetizing uncut shot of him wolfing down a sandwich and onion strings that let us know he’s “just like us” in all the grossest ways.
In its high moments, the film exposes the unrealistic expectations we as a society have of our politicians. Anthony gets attacked by 30+ reporters while trying to ride the subway: we expect him to give good public answers as he weathers an onslaught of critique and harassment and continues his 5 year apology tour. Anthony gets warm and admiring messages from his supporters: we want him to remain impervious, put his head down, and do his job of legislation. In one particularly revealing interview, Anthony himself can’t answer why he is the way he is, or why he sent those texts, but suggests that the same qualities that caused him to make such big missteps are the ones that made him an electable politician, and more importantly made him want to act as a public servant. It’s the age old two sides of the same coin argument.
The documentary does more than pose deep philosophical questions, though; it is a legitimately laugh-out-loud funny collection of scenes. The staffer who sips Jamba Juice while simultaneously lighting up a cigarette, reviewing McDonalds escape plans and revealing secret code names could be a main character on Veep. Anthony’s various appearances at parades are totally delightful, and perfect fodder for an inspirational montage. We watch as he waves Ecuadorian, Colombian, Jamaican, Israeli flags with the flare of a Ole Miss baton twirler, all within a span of hot summer months, hamming it up in different languages, and clearly comfortable amidst the pageantry. From these scenes clear — he’s got that “it” factor of a politician who can connect with people from all backgrounds and inspire hope — that heads side of the political strengths/flaws coin.
By the end of the film, we see Anthony Weiner for what he is: a real human. The portait-style interviews reinforce this point, showing the minutia of his facial expressions and forcing viewers to confront the fact that this man is not one-dimensional. He notices superficial things about himself on camera, like a bad camera of his bald spot. He lies, and repeatedly makes the same stupid mistakes, but he also tries to do right by his constituent and makes insightful comments about the media without blaming it for all of society’s wrongs. In this age of the great debate over “political correctness”, perhaps we’re discussing the term in the wrong context — maybe we need to look at our expectations of correctness and morality from of our politicians, come to terms with their humanity, and go from there.