I imagine one of the most difficult decisions to make as a documentarian is when to start & when to stop collecting footage. Unlike with fictional narratives, there’s no clear beginning & end to most real-life stories and I imagine trying to establish those boundaries on an ongoing story has got to be a stressful process for a filmmaker. The documentary Weiner, on the other hand, seemed to be one of those right place/right time scenarios where a story very clearly has a beginning & an end and all the right narrative pieces just simply fall into place for its story beats. If I didn’t know any better from personal exposure to national news media I’d believe Weiner was too cut & dry to be unscripted. Following infamous politician Anthony Weiner has he attempts to run for mayor of NYC despite a past sexting/dick pic scandal, the documentary had a fairly decent opening premise for a narrative subject. It would’ve probably been a very middling film had its co-directors Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg not “lucked” out & been present while a second dick pic scandal broke during the mayoral campaign while they were filming. Without this second scandal, Weiner wouldn’t be much of a recommendable experience. Without Anthony Weiner’s stubborn narcissism in continuing his campaign & allowing the film to proceed despite the scandal, it wouldn’t have much significance either. Weiner succeeds by happenstance, but it’s still a fascinating glimpse at a slow-moving political train wreck, no matter how the film happened to capture its carnage.
With an excess of footage & access, Weiner initially looks back to the former congressman’s early days when he was known as a “scrappy” & “combative” politician of the people and not an Internet age sex addict. His Achilles heel seems to be synonymous with his greatest strength: tireless passion. The same relentless dedication that made him a popular New York State congressman is also what ruins his career as he refuses to shy away from his disastrous mayoral campaign & instead addresses his scandal head on in the public eye. Weiner wants to talk economic policy and stop & frisk; reporters, somewhat understandably, want to talk dick pics. It’s a destructively stubborn decision to continue his campaign despite these circumstances, one that threatens to end both his career & his marriage in one crushing blow. One of the more interesting aspects of the documentary is how it finds its emotional core in Weiner’s marriage to Hillary Clinton advisor Huma Abedin. The couple deals with the film’s central crisis as a political enterprise rather than a romantic unit, but Abedin’s stress & disappointment seeps through that façade. Without Abedin lurking in the background of this documentary, Weiner would still have interesting things to say about how the media handles sex scandals & how the private lives of politicians sometimes outweigh the merits of their careers, but she’s what provides the film an emotional core that drives that point home. Weiner himself is too much of a tireless cartoon of a blowhard to command that kind of pathos.
In the end, it really doesn’t matter that Weiner succeeds by happenstance. The story is just too good & too strange for the audience to to look away, becoming increasingly bizarre as Weiner becomes more passionate about not backing down in the face of a scandal. At times he threatens to become physically combative, even confronting one of his documentarians for not being a true fly on the wall when they dare to ask a question. The film is interesting in the way it won’t let its subject off the hook for his brazen egotism, the media off for its fascination with sensationalism, or the audience off for participating in those two combatants’ cat & mouse shenanigans as enraptured witnesses. Still, the strangeness of its narrative details (like the revelation that Weiner’s online pseudonym was the even sillier name “Carlos Danger”) and the continued relevance of its story after the end credits (a third, worst-yet Weiner scandal just broke in the last few weeks) were all stumbled upon discoveries. Don’t look to Weiner for anything more than what you’d formally find in the technical style of a CNN documentary or a television special. As far as having an interesting story to tell, however, the film happened to strike pure gold.