As 'make up your mind' time arrives in the US, at the close of another seemingly unending and bitterly fought general election campaign, it seems appropriate that the UK's Jewish Film Festival chose today to screen Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg's acclaimed political doc, Weiner. It also feels timely to repost the Smoke Screen's review of the film, from earlier in the year. Enjoy at your leisure, and (try to) shake off those election nerves.
The UK Jewish Film Festival funs 5-20 November across London and the UK, see here for the full calendar.
Directors: Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg
15 | 1h 36min | Documentary | 8 July 2016 (UK release date)
Seven-term congressman and New York City failed mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner is probably not a household name to British audiences. But if you had been watching The Daily Show a few years back you would almost certainly would have come across several sketches showcasing the epic double downfall of this politician, a downfall which, given the unfortunate surname of the figure involved and the sexual nature of the transgressions, seemed to confirm his status as a walking punchline and political pariah.
Filmmakers Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s new documentary tracks the period where Weiner, some time after his humiliating resignation as a congressman for using Twitter to send pictures of his crotch to a female follower, mounts his New York City mayoral campaign in summer of 2013. He actually started ahead in the polls, and drew large crowds. New York, it seems, is a city where you can get a second chance. But Kriegman and Sternberg suddenly saw the trajectory of their film turn 180 degrees when Weiner was forced to admit that new “sexting” allegations had a basis in fact. The media descended and ripped apart his every move, with Weiner trying desperately to forge ahead and turn the conversation back to policy, to no avail. What a story these two filmmakers found themselves caught in the middle of! Contextualising Weiner’s rise and fall with a mixture of footage from his mayoral run and his former career, while intercutting this with examples of the absurd tone and level of media coverage Weiner was subjected to, the filmmakers do a pretty good job of transmitting the sheer nuttiness of that season in New York.
Weiner is undeniably gripping in that awful “car-crash TV” kind of way, as we are shown the increasing pressure and crippling 24-hour news coverage crushing Weiner in a vice, a situation not helped by his combative, swaggering nature. One "story arc" that emerges from all the footage the filmmakers present to us is that the same qualities that made Weiner such a star congressman - his bullishness and willingness to play to the camera - became crippling flaws when he had to fight on the defensive, and project humility instead of arrogance. In one wince-inducing scene we see Weiner, flailing as his poll ratings sink, getting right up in a bystander’s face inside a downtown bakery after he overhears a snide comment. You can imagine the horrified faces of his PR team as, in full view of a dozen network TV cameras, he rails against the man’s judgement. Footage of this rant was irresistible ammo for news review and comedy shows. Youtube helped make Weiner a star, and we are shown footage of him imperiously holding court in Congress, giving barnstorming soapbox performances which enamoured him to a generation of New Yorkers. But the same digital tools he used to fuel his rise made his fall just as rapid.
Despite all the political farce, there is a story of dark, personal tragedy here. Despite his many flaws, there is still something depressing about watching Weiner’s attempt to discuss policy be utterly ground down by the refusal of the media and audiences at hustings to talk about anything else other than the scandals. Further collateral damage in all this was Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin, a skilled political staffer who had worked side by side with Hillary Clinton as an aide. Despite having earned a career which had made her well-known and respected across Washington DC, Huma does not come off in the documentary as comfortable being the centre of attention herself. Her reward for agreeing to be part of her husband’s mayoral run, a big step for her given she had previously not been front and centre in his career, is further humiliation as a hungry media descend to “analyse” what makes a woman like Abedin “stand by her man”.
As Weiner’s mayoral race is crushed on voting day, Abedin is told that the woman who was on the receiving end of her husband’s salacious texts is hanging around outside his office with a camera crew in tow, looking for an opportunity to create “a scene”. In the face of such a shameless fame-grab, Abedin and Weiner are forced into a tragicomic plan worthy of the show Veep, as they try to dive into a next-door McDonald’s in order to use the side door into the office. As you can imagine, this is not a documentary to watch if you are looking to re-affirm your faith in the American media and political scene.