Both sides of the Atlantic we love a sex scandal involving a politician or public figure; after all, the Keith Vaz cocaine fuelled prostitute bender seemed to run for weeks in the British red-tops. But when the figure involved is named Weiner? Well that’s comedy gold so potent it almost doesn’t seem real. It’s a Two Ronnies sketch somehow come to life. It instantly becomes the most important news story at the time and thus demands to be documented.
This is the astonishing real story that Weiner attempts to document. Well to be more accurate it picks up after the scandal: Anthony Weiner, a rising star in the Democrat Party and 7 time congressman, who had to resign in disgrace following a sexting scandal in 2011. This documentary starts in 2013, with Weiner himself inviting the filmmakers into his life because he “doesn’t want to just be a punchline.” He’s running to be mayor of New York City and is co-opting the film as propaganda for both his political career as well as his personal image – he wants to be something more than the bloke with the funny name who sent explicit photos to several women.
The start of Weiner sort of plays as a real-life House of Cards. The camera is given a privileged insight into Weiner and his wife, the brilliant Huma Abedin, as they run his campaign to become mayor. The narrative is allowed behind the campaign to understand how ‘spin’ works and is maintained at the campaign level. Weiner’s attempt to own the “joke” of his name and infidelity plays as genuine charisma to the voters, but the audience of this film has the insight that this is a conscious decision maintained by the hard work of campaign staff and publicists. Honestly it’s hard not to root for the ex-congressman in these early stages. Weiner genuinely seems to be working hard to bounce back from past mistakes and regain a position of public office; by allowing the cameras behind the artifice of the campaign, there’s the inherent implication that he is somewhat genuine. Much like House of Cards, the audience ends up willing this candidate to win.
But then, half hour into the running time, a “breaking news” inter-title interrupts Weiner’s path to glory. A cable news hosts explains the revelation: more women have come forward having received explicit photos from Anthony Weiner, he’s been caught with his pants down yet again (NB: not even remotely sorry for this pun). I was hesitant to talk about this twist in this review. Sure it’s a matter of public record but at the same time it initially seemed that I was ruining the punchline of the film. But ultimately the brilliant comedy of this film doesn’t come from this single twist, but rather the dramatic change in overall tone from this point onwards – the political thriller gives way to cringe comedy in the vein of The Office or Alan Partridge. David Brent and Michael Scott seem so ridiculous and awkward that they couldn’t possibly be real, but Weiner raises the possibility that men like this might actually exist and they might even have a penchant for a dick pic. In a brilliant post-modern subversion, Anthony Weiner’s attempt to co-opt the punchline for his own uses just ends up giving more weight to the joke.
To give a particularly painful example, in the immediate aftermath of the news story there’s a conversation between Weiner and his publicist which is nearly impossible to watch. She tries to get the ex-congressman to talk straight with her, list exactly what he did or at the very least work out how many women could potentially go to the media. She is clearly a very level-headed individual, acting with a huge amount of grace and tact as she seeks to control the current issue and make preparations to pre-empt any future ones; with naked photos of Weiner being circulated online, she has the sense to go into damage limitation mode. However throughout this conversation Weiner is simultaneously confrontational and spaced out. Like a sulking child he spends the entire time refusing to answer questions and evading any confessions of guilt; it’s almost as if he dissociates from the room and thus refuses to acknowledge his actions as a problem. But the cringe doesn’t truly hit until the end of this scene. The true reason Weiner is stand offish is because he himself isn’t fully aware of how many women he has sexted. The moment where publicist and audience realise together that the scale of this scandal far exceeds their comprehension is a moment of brilliant “car crash” cinema; you wish you could look away for just one second, but you can’t pull yourself away from just how bad this man has fucked his life.
Honestly I can’t quite comprehend that this story is real, even after watching Weiner twice. The creative team is able to capture a moment of self-destruction so perfect and pure that it begs belief that a real human being could be so foolish. If you told me that Anthony Weiner was a Steve Coogan character I would have probably believed you. But he’s not – there actually is an (ex) elected official named Weiner who was caught multiple times sending photos of his penis to various women. This is human interest that simultaneously works on the most highbrow and most puerile of levels.