Near the beginning of Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s Weiner, one of the film-makers asks their subject, the allegedly “disgraced” ex-congressman Anthony Weiner who, in 2013, decided to run for mayor of New York City, if his wife, Huma Abedin, had wanted him to get back into politics. He says that she did because “She was very eager to get her life back that I had taken from her.” Or, as one enthusiastic critic summed it up: Ms. Abedin was “a fellow political animal who felt, as he did, that another race would be the only way their lives could return to normal.” There, in a nutshell, lies the essential phoniness at the heart of this film. It is not possible that anyone actually believes what he says or implies here — not the film-makers, not the audience, certainly not Huma Abedin, whose life, notwithstanding her close association with Hillary Clinton, has not been lived in the public gaze. Her husband’s submitting himself again to the scrutiny of the media, let alone to that of the film-makers he invited to follow him around on the campaign trail, is nobody’s idea of “normal.” Not even his own.
In fact, it’s just because the thrill of being constantly on public view is not normal that he finds it irresistible, just like the thrill of engaging in smutty exchanges on his phone with strangers of the opposite sex. Or, I’m sorry to say, like the thrill we in the audience get from watching his life come apart before our wondering eyes. In short, Weiner is itself a form of high-class smut. It’s porn but respectable porn — because it has been all over TV and the Internet, not to mention the newspapers, both tabloid and broadsheet, already. You may feel, as I sometimes did, as if you were watching it as you might a fatal car accident on the interstate. It fascinates you in spite of yourself because it gives you a peek into a privacy that your own natural modesty would wish to keep from the eyes of just such strangers as you are, if it had happened to you.
Except, of course, that Anthony Weiner has no natural modesty or desire for privacy. Just the opposite. Like a porn star, presumably, he has overcome that sort of modesty in order to take pleasure at being looked at, even in the most humiliating situations. Which means that he can never really be humiliated. Whatever may be the consequence for his career, that’s almost a superpower in the age of social media. The movie’s most remarkable scene comes as Mr. Weiner watches himself on TV after appearing on the Lawrence O’Donnell show on MSNBC. That was the show which began with Mr. O’Donnell asking, “What is wrong with you?” It sort of went downhill from there. By common consent, it was not Mr. Weiner’s finest media moment. Yet he can barely take his eyes off the screen, and he sits there rapt, smiling at what he sees.
Even more remarkably, his wife comes into the room and watches a few moments with him before leaving, saying she cannot bear to watch. Obviously she sees what everybody in the world except Anthony Weiner sees on the screen. Yet he barely notices she has left before turning back to the show with the same rictus on his face. I wonder to how many in the audience did it occur that they were watching the humiliation of a man with the same enjoyment that he was watching, and participating in, his own humiliation. “Hypocrite lecteur!” he might have said if he had thought to turn away from himself to look at those who were looking at him. “Mon semblable — mon frère!” I suppose we can take some comfort from the fact that, if we (and he) did not still, at some level, know it was wrong to watch, we wouldn’t enjoy the watching so much.
The answer to Lawrence O’Donnell’s question, by the way, seems to me to be that Mr. Weiner has learned, perhaps through his wife’s association with the Clintons, that in the age of scandal and scandal-mongers — both the paid ones in the media and their unpaid counterparts of the social media — that the only kind of heroism left for such as he lies in heroically standing up to public disgrace. And not just disgrace but self-generated disgrace, disgrace courted for the sole purpose of standing up to it. Another of the film’s revealing moments comes after the second round of disgraceful text messages puts an end to his mayoral campaign in everyone’s eyes but his own. But he wasn’t going to give up. Not he! He soldiers on to the humiliating end, keeping his campaign engagements even before the most hostile crowds.
Of one such, ignoring “the issues” he has been trying to talk about and going straight to the juicy stuff, he asks: “Do you think it was easy to come here, knowing I would get this question?” What did he suppose they cared for how easy it was or wasn’t to him? No doubt it wasn’t easy. Or not exactly anyway. More like voluptuous. What could he have come for that day if not to get that question — and then to signal his own distinctly post-modern virtue in bravely facing it anyway. “He has guts; that guy has guts,” says somebody about him at the beginning of the film, when he has just got into the mayoral race and it looks as if he is swimming against the tide of only one lot of scandals. Why wouldn’t he do it again then, if that’s how people were looking at it?
The film begins with some news footage of Mr. Weiner back in his congressional days passionately addressing the House about some forgotten bit of legislation whose chief virtue appears to have been the passion it elicited in Mr. A. Weiner. His whole political career, like that of his Clintonian mentors, appears to have consisted chiefly of striking just such “passionate” poses on behalf of those he constantly refers to as “the middle class” in order to proclaim his own moral superiority to those on the other side of the aisle whom he so despises. It’s so much the story of politics in our time that hardly anybody seems to have noticed that the Weiner “sexting” scandals could be seen as — and may have been seen by Mr. Weiner himself as — no more than a further development of the same process.
I’m not sure that the film-makers themselves noticed it, though they must have put those early scenes in to hint at what Gary Goldstein, the critic for the Los Angeles Times, clearly got out of them:
If the unfortunately named Weiner’s purpose was to somehow help vindicate himself for cyber-cheating on his wife, longtime Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin, by showing what a warrior of the people he was — and still could be — he may have partially succeeded. As seen here, Weiner’s steely self-possession, unflagging drive, scrappy charm and, it seems, genuine desire to make a difference add up to the kind of politician you want on your side. In these dizzying days of Donald Trump, Weiner’s flaws can seem a bit quaint.
The irony is that Mr. Trump might be as great a narcissist as Mr. Weiner, though without the creepily stealthy bits, but for the fact that he is clearly fighting against something bigger than himself.