Reviewed by Robert Koehler
Produced and directed by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg; written by Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg and Eli B. Despres; cinematography by Josh Kriegman; sound by Tom Paul; editing by Eli B. Despres; music by Jeff Beal; starring Anthony Weiner, Huma Abedin, Sydney Leathers. Color, 96 min. A Sundance Selects release, www.ifcfilms.com.
The game dominating current American nonfiction filmmaking, especially that part of it seeking a toehold in the commercial marketplace, is a strategy of shock and awe. Twisty reveals, sudden plot turns, and surprises that blow up in the viewer’s face when least expected are amply on view in a gaggle of recent work including Penny Lane’s Nuts, David Farrier’s and Dylan Reeve’s Tickled, and Derek Hallquist’s Denial. They’re some of the tricks that a post-Maysles, post-Wiseman generation of documentarians feel the need to deploy so they can push their stories as far as possible from the dusty realms of a “documentary” to the buzzy feel of a “movie.” Some of this may succeed as durable storytelling, some of this may deliver a quick knee-jerk bolt of pure sensation that quickly fades, and it will probably take several seasons and years to sort out from a critical and historical perspective if it actually worked. That’s to say, if the current sensationalist nonfiction stands the test of time.
Any film about how disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner attempts to wage a comeback after being forced to resign upon the revelation of several sexting messages and photos falls into this camp. Just the decision to choose Weiner as a subject is by definition sensationalist, with political concerns left in the rearview mirror. A way of framing a view of Josh Kriegman’s and Elyse Steinberg’s Weiner is to observe that it would likely not have existed before 2011. That’s because before 2011 Weiner wasn’t a tabloid sensation; instead, he was merely a damn colorful pol whose substance and style made him a perfectly fine subject for a documentarian. Just not enough to make the juices really flow.
Weiner became a pugnacious star of the Democratic Party left shortly after he was first elected from New York’s Ninth Congressional district in 1999, during the Bush 43 era when that wing was beleaguered and isolated. In the House of Representatives, traditionally a home for each parties’ more radical and grassroots tendencies, he spoke to a populist left ethic of social justice and FDR-style governance long before Elizabeth Warren entered electoral politics, and he far outshone Bernie Sanders, who was relatively isolated as an Independent Socialist in the Senate. Starting with Bill Clinton and somewhat consolidated (but with many complications and contradictions) by Barack Obama, the Democrats had shifted to the center and had neglected their left base. While that base reverted, partly out of sheer frustration that Democrats were failing to further a progressive agenda into policy, to direct action projects such as Occupy Wall Street, only a few progressive Democrats on Capitol Hill resisted the tendency to cave in to the push to the center and even to the right. Weiner was one of these few. If there were an actual Social Democratic, or even Socialist, party in the United States, Anthony Weiner would likely be a member.
Kriegman and Steinberg merely hint at this impressive, sometimes Quixotic congressional career in the film’s early minutes, but it plays like a throwaway, a sketched-in miniprologue before the main event. This is odd, since Kriegman served as a key aide to Weiner, and was as acquainted with his political battles as anyone. It’s this past relationship that allowed Kriegman nearly unfettered intellectual access to the thinking and ideas behind Weiner’s politics. But this isn’t the kind of access that Kriegman is evidently interested in. Instead, their relationship is the key that opens the door to filmmaking access, with Weiner, who openly views the project as part of his rehabilitation campaign, a willing partner. Unlike Bill Moyers, who used his experience as a former White House aide to break bread with and get inside the minds of those in power (since he knew them well), Kriegman uses his relationship with Weiner as something that resembles a former bandmate getting a backstage pass to cozy up with guys whom he knows are going to pull some wild stunt before the night is done.
Like much of the new nonfiction sensations, the film turns on the element of surprise. The degree to which the film actually surprises depends on the viewer’s, um, exposure to the wave of scandals that brought down Weiner, first, as a Congressman, and second, as a New York mayoral candidate in 2013. Close watchers of New York and Democratic politics won’t find much to startle them; they have long filed away the Weiner saga in the deep annals of once-promising political careers snuffed out. Casual watchers may have a different reaction, and feel the buzz Kriegman and Steinberg are seeking.
But the film’s most interesting and unintended surprise is that Weiner turns out to be a perceptive film critic. In a revealing scene, Kriegman (who is his own cinematographer) is filming Weiner in his town car during an especially difficult period of the mayoral campaign and prodding him with questions. Weiner shoots back that he wasn’t aware that a fly-on-the-wall can talk, a slap at Kriegman’s and Steinberg’s direct- cinema approach of following Weiner around and seeing what happens. The traditional strategy of Direct Cinema is to maintain some separation on one hand—the filmmakers making themselves invisible and without commentary or questions—and maximizing intimacy and immediacy to the subject on the other. By choosing to keep his off-camera questions to Weiner audible on the soundtrack, Kriegman is knowingly going against Direct Cinema practice and setting himself up for, and recording, Weiner’s criticism. (The only time when Albert and David Maysles put themselves into one of their films was in Gimme Shelter, and that was only because their filming of a murder at the Rolling Stones’ Altamont concert placed their lives in danger.) This choice is compelled by Weiner’s apt objection to Kriegman’s shifting from being a Direct Cinema observer to a journalist. Apart from Weiner’s own well-honed strategy of returning fire when attacked, and his widely reported habit of abusing and berating people who work for him, is this a case of the subject genuinely exposing something wrong and faulty in the filmmaking…
Copyright © 2016 by Cineaste, Inc.
Cineaste, Vol. XLI, No. 4