Culture

The Specter of Hillary Looms Large over Weiner

Weiner and Abedin meet the press in 2013. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)
Huma Abedin struggles to contain her wayward husband’s political implosion in a new documentary.

Weiner opens with a montage of one of former congressman Anthony Weiner’s famous over-the-top shouting performances from the floor of the House of Representatives, and from there he never really stops performing.

Throughout the documentary, now showing in limited release, neither Weiner nor his famous Hillary Clinton–confidante wife Huma Abedin let their masks slip, and consequently the pair limits the emotional connection that the audience can make with them. For the couple, this documentary was meant to be a piece of performance art, a facade. For the audience, however, it’s a front-row seat to a PR and political disaster that is hard to take your eyes off.

In the opening, we are treated only to the highlight reel of the original sexting scandal that led to Weiner’s banishment from Congress in 2011. Weiner, who at the time was one of the more social-media-savvy members of Congress, sent an explicit late-night tweet meant to be a private message to a young woman online. He flailed from one media interview to the next before finally admitting guilt and being forced to accept that his party had abandoned him. The film skips over Andrew Breitbart’s famously hijacking Weiner’s resignation press conference while standing over the dead carcass of his congressional career and jumps right into what the documentarians clearly believed at the outset would be his redemption story — his run for New York City mayor in 2013. Of course, that story quickly gets turned on its head by yet another sexting scandal.

The film opens hopefully, with the morning of Weiner’s announcement of his mayoral bid. But, as we learn, Weiner can’t get out of his own way long enough to let Huma carry him across the finish line.

Prior to the Sydney Leathers sexts and photos exploding on the scene, we see Weiner working a cramped phone bank at an election office. He marvels at a voter on the other end of the line who just happens to know another Anthony Weiner. He can’t believe there are two Anthony Weiners. (Given that he leads a double life, you’ think he would be used to the idea.)

Once the renewed scandal breaks, as cameras roll, Abedin remains silent in the background for most of the ordeal, appearing as though she’s either on the verge of tears or about to be sick, responding to Weiner’s meltdowns as the campaign drags on to its inevitable death with the resignation of a pet owner whose dog just won’t stop peeing on the rug. When she does intervene on his behalf, she commands the room. She is a dynamic presence rarely seen in political spouses. And most of all, she knows it.

For anyone on the political right hoping for Abedin to come off like the heartless silent drone we see in photographs of her whispering in the mad queen’s ear, prepare to be disappointed. Abedin is the most human and fascinating aspect of Weiner, and both her husband and the filmmakers know it. Everything she does, every expression aimed at the camera she treats almost as an intruder, is calculated, measured, and done in the interest of protecting not only her young son, but her boss and the future Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton.

#share#Twice during the film, advice from a mysterious “Philippe (almost certainly Hillary’s close adviser Philippe Reines) is received over Blackberry and obeyed with little hesitation. It is thus that we learn that Hillary’s circle is monitoring Weiner’s frat-boy antics from afar. Hillary is never seen on screen, but her shadow looms large over the entire ordeal. Meanwhile, Weiner comes off like a skinny little rascal, never really apologetic for anything other than the fact that he got caught, while those around him try to put the fire out in a burning house they are all trapped in personally and professionally.

In a fascinating moment, backstage cameras film Weiner as he implodes on Lawrence O’Donnell’s MSNBC show. Later, as Weiner and Abedin watch the meltdown online, he is almost mischievously gleeful about it. Abedin, by contrast, knows instantly that it all but spells the end of his campaign. In another scene, Weiner is trying to remember how many sexting partners he actually had while preparing for a press conference. Abedin is in the room, inwardly working out how to keep her family together, a family that includes Hillary Clinton and her 2016 chances.

On camera, Weiner never really seems to grasp what he did to his family and his campaign staff.

Even as Weiner reflects back on the pair of sexting scandals (one of which we’ve been watching unfold in real time) that consigned him to fourth-tier back-up guest on cable news, he sports an American-flag lapel pin and flashes a sheepish grin, like he’s auditioning for a role in public office or media again. That’s who Anthony Weiner is — a guy with what looks like a severe narcissistic personality disorder who thinks he’s just clever enough to fool those around him into giving him another chance. On camera, Weiner never really seems to grasp what he did to his family and his campaign staff, who truly believed in giving him a second chance at elected office.

Maybe the facade he puts up is a defense mechanism, but it doesn’t fool Abedin or the documentarians Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, who never stop attempting to get Weiner to express his real feelings. In one scene, Weiner tells the man behind the camera to act like a fly on the wall and stop talking.

While traveling to a polling place on Election Day, he buries his face in a giant slice of cake, by now fully aware his mayoral chances are all but ashes in the wind. He wonders aloud what his next professional screw up will be down the road.

#related#The documentary is as fascinating a treatment of the behind-the-scenes workings of a campaign in crisis as Scandal or House of Cards. We see the real-time reactions of campaign staff left in the dark and tasked with having to mitigate the breaking news of Weiner’s alter ego “Carlos Danger.” We see Sydney Leathers crashing his election night party, resulting in a sprint through a Manhattan McDonalds to avoid her. We witness all of it, and no matter which political side of the aisle you fall on, Weiner never convinces you that he didn’t deserve the humiliation he had coming.

He continues to believe he’s going to get away with it. You have to think Huma, by now, as Hillary’s most trusted campaign adviser, has a hole already dug somewhere in the woods just in case he tries to run for office again. Weiner is almost certainly going to be nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars next year, and Weiner himself, humiliated and his political career rendered extinct, seems to think he was up for Best Actor.

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