And, Scene: Weiner

The Atlantic looks back at key cinematic moments in 2016, this time Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s documentary about the titular, doomed politician.

Sundance Selects

Over the next two weeks, The Atlantic will delve into some of the most interesting films of the year by examining a single, noteworthy moment and unpacking what it says about 2016. Today: Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s Weiner. (The whole “And, Scene” series will appear here.)

It’s hardly hyperbole to say Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s documentary Weiner is the most significant movie of 2016, though perhaps not in the way its filmmakers intended. When it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival ahead of a May theatrical release, Weiner had a quasi-redemptive angle to it, a sort of naïve sympathy for its attention-hungry subject, undone by his own compulsions. It was a thrilling fly-on-the-wall documentary where you couldn’t understand how the fly had gotten access, let alone lingered as everything began crashing down. But to watch it now, post-November, is to be reminded of a crucial turning point in the 2016 election, and wince rather than marvel at its subject’s recklessness. In the course of less than a year, Weiner transformed from a fascinating sideshow into a horror film.

Kriegman and Steinberg’s film explores the rise, fall, attempted comeback, and dramatic collapse of former Congressman Anthony Weiner. He resigned from Congress in 2011 over a sexting scandal but mounted a quixotic New York City mayoral run in 2013 with the encouragement of his wife Huma Abedin, a prominent aide to Hillary Clinton. During that race, more of Weiner’s sexting partners emerged, saying they had interacted with him well after his resignation, which upended the redemptive timeline the candidate had sold to the press. His hobbled campaign staggered on to a massive loss, and, as Kriegman and Steinberg chronicle, the toll on his marriage was equally crippling. There’s a pivotal scene in the film that revolves around Weiner appearing on MSNBC’s The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, and having its host deal him a blunt question that had likely occurred to most viewers: “What is wrong with you?”

In the segment, Weiner deflected, unnerved at the cruel directness of O’Donnell’s line of interrogation, but the host persisted. “What is wrong with you that you cannot seem to imagine a life without elective office?” Weiner grew increasingly irritated, smirking angrily as O’Donnell repeated, “I think that there is something wrong with you.” Eventually, Weiner snapped. “Chillax, buddy!” he said. “Dude, I don’t really need your psychiatric questions!” It was hostile gotcha television, justified only from the perspective that O’Donnell was voicing the frustration many New Yorkers (and others around the country) felt with this former rising star of Congress.

But the reverse angle captured by Kriegman and Steinberg’s film was somehow even more compelling. Weiner did the interview remotely from a studio in Manhattan; in the documentary, we watch as he gesticulates wildly and yells at the man in his earpiece as if possessed, dramatically throwing his arms in the air and harrumphing after every pause. He emerges from the studio and dives into a cab. “Part of what animates me is I hate bullies,” he tells the camera. “It’s easy to beat me up ... it’s not that hard, and I don’t respect it that much.” As with so much of Weiner’s campaign, you sympathize with his overall ideas, whilst distrusting the messenger.

The next morning, Weiner loads the clip online, watching on his computer as Abedin walks up behind him, holding her hand to her temple in some mix of embarrassment and exhaustion. As the clip goes on, a slow grin creeps across Weiner’s face, hesitant, but strangely triumphant. “Who do you think looks better, me or him?” he asks. “Why are you laughing? This is crazy,” Abedin says with a sigh. “What was I supposed to do?” Weiner chuckles, before asking his wife, “How bad is it?” “It’s bad.” “For me?” She nods, sadly, then walks away, saying, “Sorry, I can’t.” Weiner keeps the MSNBC clip running with his rictus grin intact, gesturing to the screen and telling the camera, “Whatever the opposite of that is, is what Huma is.”

It’s a scene that exemplifies everything that was simultaneously arresting and horrifying in Weiner. It’s a candid look inside a marriage turning sour, a naked examination of a politician’s untempered ego, and a case study of the news media’s uselessness in delivering anything beyond superficial jousting. Weiner knows the O’Donnell appearance went badly, but he also knows how compelling it is; he knows his wife can’t stand to look at it, but doesn’t quite understand why, since she’s the one who nudged him back into the spotlight. This is a man who repeatedly, compulsively sought sexual attention from anonymous women on Twitter despite the destruction of his career, his family, and ultimately (and most inadvertently) the 2016 Clinton campaign. Of course Weiner didn’t directly change the course of the election, but it did set a bizarre chain of events in motion. As another particularly vile sexting scandal broke for Weiner after the film, the FBI opened an investigation into him and announced days before the election that it might have uncovered related evidence to Hillary Clinton’s private email server. In the end, nothing came of it, but the damage was done.

It feels perfectly appropriate that in 2016, a mortifying examination of one man’s ego played a role in the election of America’s next president. Weiner is a depressing pile-up of the year’s governing impulses: the media’s veneration of scandal, the increasing shamelessness of the country’s politicians, and Weiner’s quiet, ashamed delight in his own continued relevance. Nothing exemplified it more than that shot of him looking at his own public humiliation with a grin on his face. He knows he should look away and perhaps stay away from cameras in general for the foreseeable future. But he just can’t.

Previously: Moonlight

Next Up: Hell or High Water