Ok so, let me set the scene for you here.
Anthony Weiner was a democratic congressman from New York City from 1999-2011. A brash and passionate speaker, he was very popular with his constituents. He rides Citi Bikes and takes the subway like your average New Yorker.
Then he accidentally tweeted a picture of his underwear covering an erection. A picture he meant to private message to someone who wasn’t his (pregnant) wife.
Then a few more scandalous pictures were leaked. Turns out Weiner had been doing an awful lot of secret sexting, and he resigned from his position in congress with an outpouring of profound and solemn apologies.
Two years later, Weiner, his little son Jordan, and his glorious, professional wife Huma Abedin, have picked up the pieces and are back on the campaign trail. This time, he’s running for Mayor of NYC. He’s always wanted to be in public service, he insists, and he’s not going to let his stupid mistakes ruin his career. Huma, who has worked as a close aide to Hillary Rodham Clinton for years, has always stayed out of Weiner’s political spotlight, but this time she’s championing him publicly. The past is the past, they say. Everyone deserves a second chance.
Things are going well. His campaign is picking up steam; people are practical and forgiving. One woman explains, “We’re from the Bronx. We don’t care about personal garbage.” Weiner has allowed a documentary team to follow him around as he tries to win back NYC.
More pictures surface on the internet, more explicit than before. (About as explicit as you can get) And these latest are dated to after his resignation from congress.
This is a documentary of a very public figure, so, there aren’t really plot twists or surprise endings. Wikipedia (and maybe your memory, especially if you’re a New Yorker) tells you the outcome of Weiner’s 2013 mayoral race. But what Weiner gives us is a brisk, laugh-out-loud, fascinating peek into the campaign offices, living rooms, and cars of the people ensnared in Anthony Weiner’s bizarre saga.
The movie doesn’t exonerate or vilify Weiner, but it made me think about a lot of things. About the exhausting political campaigning process in the U.S. About what kinds of scandals Americans are willing to forgive, and what kinds they aren’t. About the brutality of the media - how TV hosts and “reporters” endlessly speculate, and prey on the spouses and children of those under fire. About how ridiculous politicians are, but also how they are real people. They send dick pics and rock their babies to sleep at night.
It’s one of those cringeworthy stories you can’t help laughing at. One thing I know, I don’t envy Barbara Morgan, Anthony Weiner’s longsuffering communications director. She provides this perpetually calm counterpoint to his sass and his shenanigans that continue to spiral into the public sphere. She is a pro, but it’s easy to see how drained she is.
But not nearly as drained as his wife, Huma, the film’s tragically beautiful centerpiece.
It’s impossible to describe her quiet dignity, her vulnerable admissions, her commitment, and her mystery. We spend a lot of time looking at her looking at her husband. And I keep wondering...what’s inside your head right now? What are you really thinking?
She comes across as very genuine, admitting when she’s tired and uncomfortable, and not forcing smiles behind closed doors. The heartbreak moment comes when the cameras are set up in the family kitchen. Huma is dressed for the day, complete with bright red lipstick, and she’s getting her vitamins from the cupboard. It’s just a day or two since the new photos have leaked, mere weeks before NYC votes for Mayor. Someone behind the cameras asks how she’s doing, and she gives a slow, jaded smile filled with unspeakable weariness.
“It’s like living a nightmare,” she casually admits, and makes her way to the other side of the room.
Because there’s really no escape. He “did the thing,” he shrugs. So his detractors have a pretty wide berth to tear him down. But he still thinks he’d be a good Mayor.
While fascinating, his story is not unique. Instinct tells me that almost every politician is hiding a secret like Weiner’s - he simply got caught. “It’s hard for me to have normal relationships,” he admits at one point - not as an excuse for his behavior, but more as a ponderous reflection on his own life.
“Why have you let me film this?” the camera operator asks him near the end of the film, after Weiner has found a moment’s quiet from the media monster. Our audience let out a chuckle at that - we’d all been wondering the same thing.
Anthony Weiner wants to be more than a punchline. And we all want to be understood, right? That’s a basic human need. But it’s a strange experience to peer into the life of another human and not be too moved or troubled. I’m a woman and a wife; I feel for Huma and for Barbara, and for Weiner’s tiny son. But in the end, this documentary showed me that Anthony Weiner is pretty much what I thought he was.
Hard worker? Sure. Passionate civil servant? You bet. But he’s a man desperate to be watched. He’s a man who comes alive for the public eye. And that kind of need, that kind of drive, can lead someone with even the most noble intentions down a terrible, difficult road.