The documentary boom of the last few years has given us dozens of fantastic films, but not many that can offer unfettered access to their subjects. Even some of today’s best documentary filmmakers, like the prolific Alex Gibney, take an aggregation approach to their films; they’re okay with telling you a story you might have heard before, as long as it’s done in a new way. Political documentaries, particularly, often suffer from the “to learn more, visit this website” closing credits problem—the persistent sense that the filmmaker cares more about their (usually well-intentioned and noble) cause than making a compelling movie in the first place. Documentaries are everywhere now, and many are great. But they rarely show you something you would have thought impossible to catch on film. (Unless of course you’re The Jinx, and you happen to find a serial killer who inexplicably wants to confess to you.)
One of the many miracles of Weiner, the new documentary about Anthony Weiner’s nightmarishly ill-fated run for New York City mayor in 2013, is that it is packed with holy-shit moments. Initially conceived by Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman as a fly-on-the-wall treatment of what many thought would be a rousing comeback story, the film becomes something much rarer and far more staggering as the campaign collapses: a movie that offers real access to public figures at their most private and vulnerable. It never stops making you gasp.
Weiner is the story of two people who understand public scrutiny as well as anyone on the planet, and nevertheless watch as their lives find new and horrifying ways to explode every day. Weiner, the former Congressman who resigned after sending lewd photos of himself to random people on Twitter, saw a mayoral campaign with no obvious frontrunner as an opportunity to restore himself to his former stature. The movie kicks off with Weiner saying that one of the reasons he wanted to run was for his wife, Huma Abedin, a fellow political animal who felt, as he did, that another race would be the only way their lives could return to normal. It is difficult to overstate how wrong this assessment would turn out to be. By the end, Weiner is being chased through the streets by porn stars with cameras and screamed at on national television, while his poll numbers plummet and Clinton aides essentially beg him to drop out.
Steinberg and Kriegman are there for every second of the catastrophic campaign, and while their style is a little on the nose at times—as dramatists, they tend to underline their big moments even when it’s unnecessary—you won’t mind. What they manage to capture on film really will blow you away: betrayed staffers screaming at Weiner, appalled that he could be so stupid and reckless with his and their careers; Weiner studiously practicing his “emotional” apologies into the camera minutes before his big press conference. After the scandal breaks, Weiner asks everyone but Abedin and Kriegman—the documentary filmmaker!— to leave the room; then he explains to Abedin that he sent the pictures “when we were talking about separating.”
But mostly the film is about Huma. Never has the portrait of a spouse spurned—as much as a spouse can be spurned when it appears there was never any actual adultery, at least in a physical sense, involved—burned so cold. Abedin, who is not only trying to raise the couple’s son but also retain her position in Hillary Clinton’s inner circle, faces almost unfathomable indignities throughout the campaign, and the camera is there for all of them. The moment I found the most affecting was when she watches Weiner, after a particularly disastrous appearance on MSNBC, revel in what he believes to have been a triumphant performance; in her eyes, you can see thousands of years of women who realize, too late, just what a dipshit they married. That she retains her composure as her world evaporates all around her feels almost heroic.
The movie wisely doesn’t attempt to explain why Weiner would set his once-promising career on fire like this; honestly, what explanation could possibly satisfy? But the film, which never loses sight of Weiner’s humanity, takes us to a place we never thought any politician would let us see. There’s a moment, in the final hours of this wretched campaign, when Weiner looks at his wife, and she looks at him, and they share an unspoken understanding: This is more than two people should have to bear, and it is all Anthony’s fault. Weiner’s response here doesn’t redeem him—but it shows, at last, the fever breaking, and a glimpse of a life after. You can watch years of political documentaries and never see a moment this intimate. Weiner has about ten more just like it.
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Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host a podcast on film, Grierson & Leitch. Follow them on Twitter @griersonleitch or visit their site griersonleitch.com.