Politics, as the saying goes, is showbusiness for ugly people. Nowhere can this maxim be more clearly witnessed than in the character of Anthony Weiner, former US congressman & subject of the delightful documentary Weiner from Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg. Without passing comment on his appearance, he has the chutzpah and throbbing personality of a cabaret or comedy star; sadly for his career, he has a tendency to shoot himself in the foot. Or rather, to photoshoot himself, in rather more explicit areas. And all this in an age of voracious, salacious media. Roll up, roll up; this is the political circus at its most blatant.
The film begins with a reminder of who Weiner used to be; a Democratic firebrand, a Congressman mixing the left’s idealism and care for the common person with the fervour of the right. More TV preacher than politician, he bangs lecterns and shouts down colleagues in his support of progressive politics. Then came his hamartia, the revelation of sexts to several women across three years after Weiner himself accidentally posted a image to his Twitter. All of this information is covered in a minute or two pre-titles, through a montage of media clips; it sets a rapid pace and cheeky, light tone that continues throughout. Political docs haven’t been this much fun since the early days of Michael Moore.
Weiner is a performer extraordinaire, whether rallying for the support of different ethnic groups in New York’s diverse streets (‘¡Que viva Colombia!’), getting into a slanging match with a TV interviewer, or buttering up wealthy ladies at a Women for Weiner fundraiser (the film tactfully deals with his surname early doors) . Occasionally he seems to be vying for director of the film too; the level of access he has afforded the filmmakers is extraordinary, to the extent that he sends members of staff out of the room but allows the camera to stay. Even when he does eventually dismiss it, you feel it is done for an effect he desires. Like a good actor, he is entirely aware of the lens, but rarely looks straight into it. That Kriegman was formerly Weiner’s chief of staff and that the film was requested does not discredit it; it simply adds another element to this attention-seeking but attention-meriting showman. There are glimpses of Barack Obama, but just as many of David Brent.
It will be intriguing to see how Weiner plays to different age groups. For older viewers, his sleaze is base and unworthy of the supposed high office of politics, and is compounded by his unwillingness to admit it. For younger ones, his offence is everyday stuff; many will have sent/received sexts, and may have a greater degree of empathy. Or perhaps apathy. After all, is sending photos to an individual online and engaging in private sexting worse than making a crass joke about the size of your penis in public? (If only that were the most damaging of Donald Trump’s misdemeanours).
As well as a great political dramedy, this deserves a place in the canon of New York movies, with Anthony and his team constantly on the move from parade to campaign office to hotel room. It would make an interesting companion piece to Taxi Driver; is Anthony Weiner the Senator Palpatine we never quite get to meet? All around Weiner are the people for whom he is fighting, even if sometimes they disapprove of his actions or, amusingly, don’t know who he is. That particular interaction (part of which is in the trailer below) is a reminder that no-one holds politicians in higher esteem than they do themselves.
So once the (camera) flashes have died and the credits have rolled, what are we left with? A humourous, bubbling portrait of a man who may just have been born too early. A show of the blurred lines between private and public, and how political scandal moves faster than ever. And a warning that, unless the culture changes in both media and politics, Hillary vs Trump may be as good as it gets for a while.