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?”
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.