It’s kinda brilliant that the filmmakers decided to open this doc on disgraced politician Anthony Weiner with one of your lesser known but perfectly apropos quotes - “The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he can never recover.” It could have opened on the quote you’re most famous for - “The medium is the message”. After all, this is the story of a man trying to get a second chance on the national stage and a prime example of how politics in the 21st century are informed by media and technology. To wit, it is the tale of a once-rising Democrat, whose name is a synonym for penis, brought down by a dick pic.
Is this how you imagined what the web would be when you predicted it back in the Sixties?
Anthony Weiner was a passionate and popular up-and-coming congressman with a bright future ahead of him. His wedding to Huma Abedin, a close advisor to Hillary Clinton, was officiated by none other than Bill Clinton. But in 2011 he admitted to sending sexually explicit photographs and messages to at least six women, and his career in congress ended with his resignation. In 2013, Anthony allowed Elyse Steinberg and his former congressional chief of staff Josh Kriegman to document his run for Mayor of New York City. What was supposed to be a comeback story takes an unexpected turn when news of further sexual transgressions come to light.
Weiner’s meteoric rise and tragic-comic demise are shown in news clips, print headlines, Tweets, late night monologues, and roundtable punditry. The sophomoric, Weiner-pun headlines from the covers of the New York Post scroll across the bottom of the screen like a lurid, cable news crawl. The first obstacle the nascent campaign must hurdle is the media’s incessant rehashing of the scandal, and Weiner’s team is prepared. Huma is supportive but apprehensive. Being an advisor to the most powerful woman in politics is one thing, but being the wife of a disgraced politician hoping for a second chance is a lot to ask. As the campaign rises and falls, it is the moments between Anthony and Huma that are the most fascinating, perhaps because we are rarely invited behind the scenes to be an audience to a scandal taking place in real time.
Kriegman and Steinberg are given an almost inconceivable level of access, but I suppose in this day and age, allowing cameras to film your every move – good, bad, or ugly –for a politician at least, isn’t seen as a sacrifice. It would likely come as no surprise to you, of all people, that today the line between an elected official’s private and public life isn’t just blurred, it’s dotted if it’s even there at all. And we, the public, accept this as business as usual, because it is just that. Business. Weiner is trying to re-launch his brand, but it’s the media who ultimately decide how it will be sold.
As Weiner attempts to steer his campaign back to the issues, we see just how little control he has over his own narrative. And yet, he remains remarkably unfazed, and even sanguine about his part in the process saying, “They love talking about the scandal, but I did the thing, so it’s not their fault they played their role. It’s the frog and the scorpion.” As the second scandal unfolds, and Huma becomes the target of attacks, Weiner doubles down. He lashes out at reporters and strangers on the street alike, and it’s all caught on not just one, but multiple cameras – the press, documentarians, and average Joes with Smartphones. By this time, regardless of how we feel about Weiner, we all just desperately want to move on.
In probably the most effective scene, we see Weiner alone in a television studio being filmed via satellite for an interview with Lawrence O’Donnell whose opening question for the mayoral candidate is, “what’s wrong with you?” The doc flips from both sides of the interview to finally just showing Weiner in the studio literally yelling into a camera in an empty room. The metaphors here are endless.
Part of what makes Weiner so compelling is its prescience. Obviously, the film-makers couldn’t have predicted the rise of Donald Trump – another thin-skinned, media money-maker - as a serious Presidential contender, but they realize how frighteningly powerful the media is at shaping political discourse. Just as they understand the force of name (read: brand) recognition, be it Clinton, Trump, Weiner, or Carlos Danger. Near the end of the campaign Weiner declares, “If I had more time, I could rebound again.” And it’s easy to believe that he might. The unstoppable juggernaut that is the “news cycle” is shown here to be beyond anyone’s control, and just as we are powerless to stop it, we are all complicit in its endless revolution.
Ever on message,