Run, as they say, don't walk to the nearest theater showing Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg's spectacular new documentary. (Fortunately for Vermonters, there are two such theaters at press time, so no excuses.) Weiner is simply the most significant campaign film of our time, released at precisely the perfect moment. Never before has the intersection of politics, entertainment, the media, the web and pathology been captured with such riveting results.
The spectacle, of course, is Anthony Weiner, the seven-term congressman who became a national punchline in 2011 when he tweeted a photo of the bulge in his briefs. Like any good politician — and one of the tragedies the film highlights is that Weiner was a talented politician, a fiery champion of the working class — he lied when the scandal broke.
First, he went on a Denial Tour. Weiner claimed to newsperson after newsperson that he couldn't be certain the bulge was his. In one of the film's most priceless moments, a flabbergasted Wolf Blitzer stammers, "You would know if those were your underpants!"
Next, Weiner maintained his account had been hacked. Then he admitted he'd sent the picture. Throughout, he vowed he'd never resign. Suddenly, one day, he resigned.
Given all that, everyone probably should've been able to guess what the future held for Weiner as he made his farewell speech, apologizing and essentially promising never to repeat the mistake. But nobody did.
Not his wife, Huma Abedin (who is, coincidentally, Hillary Clinton's longtime confidant and vice chair of her presidential campaign). Not filmmaker Kriegman, Weiner's former chief of staff — hence his astonishing level of access. And certainly not the citizens of New York City, who overwhelmingly supported Weiner when he first launched his run for mayor, just two years later.
The first half of the film plays out like a Hollywood comeback story. With his beaming wife by his side, Weiner assembles a large and enthusiastic staff, deftly deflects reporters' questions about his past with his vision for the city's future, leads parades, holds rallies and rides the subway. There he mingles with passengers as they read the day's paper reporting his surging poll numbers. Meanwhile, Bill de Blasio trails in a second place that seems to get more distant by the day.
Until the unthinkable happens. With a little help from an aspiring porn star named Sydney Leathers, the press discovers that Weiner never actually changed his sexting ways. He'd been at it all along, often up to five times a day. The only thing he changed was his online persona, engaging in all manner of naughty social media activity using the comically absurd name Carlos Danger.
"What is wrong with you?" he's asked on MSNBC by a dumbfounded Lawrence O'Donnell. That is, of course, the mystery at the heart of this remarkable and seriously mesmerizing movie. You can see the same disbelief and bewilderment in Abedin's eyes as Election Day nears and her husband's chance for redemption vaporizes while the whole world looks on. The filmmakers capture countless telling moments, both private and public, over the course of the campaign. But none of them answers that perhaps unanswerable question.
While Weiner is charismatic, witty and undeniably bright, he ultimately comes off as clueless as anyone else. The closest he gets to genuine self-awareness may be a comment he makes to Kriegman, who's off camera: "Politicians are wired in some way to need attention." Getting it from the media wasn't enough. Looking for it online led to Weiner's downfall. Twice. Now his lies, betrayals and degradation are being witnessed by millions on the big screen.
Something tells me Weiner has never been happier.