IFC documentary captures rise, fall of ‘Weiner’

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Anthony Weiner’s struggle is a hard on(e). The fiery ex-House member was once the darling of the Democratic party, until a wave of sexting scandals crashed over him and ended his political career not once, but twice — first in 2011, when he resigned from the House of Representatives, and then again in 2013, when he unsuccessfully attempted to run for mayor of New York City.

Weiner and his weiner are the subject of a new IFC Films documentary, appropriately (or perhaps inappropriately) titled “Weiner.” The film is an entertaining and intimate look at one of America’s most recognizable (and probably most notorious) politicians during his disastrous 2013 campaign for mayor, following him and his family as they wade through the excruciatingly uncomfortable fallout of Weiner’s sexting scandals.

Though “Weiner” picks up the former House representative’s story at the start of his 2013 mayoral bid, it pays less attention to the details of the campaign than Weiner’s fight to assert himself as a legitimate candidate in the face of previous misconduct. The film begins with a quote from the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan: “The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers.” It’s both a pointed comment on how unforgiving and often excoriating the media can be, as well as a sophomoric joke about the unfortunate connection between Weiner’s name and the nature of his scandals. It sums up the politician’s battle elegantly: Can he convince his constituents that his mistakes don’t define him?

It’s an uphill battle of Sisyphean proportions. Time and time again, Weiner is forced to answer questions not about how he can help New York City, but about whether or not he will be able to work around his sexual indiscretions. In a fiery interview with MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, O’Donnell opens by asking Weiner frankly, “What is wrong with you?” Weiner shoots back, “What is wrong with me that I care so much about the issues that I fight for every day, that I have (for) my entire career?”

Curiously enough, it’s hard not to like Anthony Weiner, even when his numerous scandals are paraded right in front of your face. He seems good natured and well-meaning, with a powerful and sincere love for New York City. In one scene, Weiner nonchalantly boards the subway as if he’s a regular New Yorker, rather than a nationally famous politician. He nods and smiles at the numerous passengers who gesture toward him in excited recognition but doesn’t make a big deal out of it. You can call him many things — jerk, idiot, unfaithful husband, sex addict — but you’d be hard-pressed to make a compelling argument that Anthony Weiner is an elitist.

The greatest achievement of “Weiner” is its intimacy. The film is tremendously compelling because it offers an opportunity to see Anthony Weiner explain himself candidly, without all of the media pressure bearing relentlessly down upon him. It’s not difficult to see that he’s embarrassed and perhaps even a little ashamed. He wonders about the force that compelled him to send his nudes to a 22 year old. At one point, while sitting in a car with the camera crew, Weiner plays with the idea that the “constitution” that compelled him to send out those photos is the same one that empowers him to weather the scandal without being destroyed by it.

Indeed, Weiner doesn’t seem to have been destroyed at all by his scandals. His wife, political staffer Huma Abedin, might tell another story. Humiliation after humiliation crashes over the Weiner-Abedin family like waves. For the most part, Weiner seems unfazed. Abedin often looks like she’s drowning. One morning, while downing vitamins like they’re candy, Abedin tells the crew that she’s “living a nightmare.” Her resilience is striking and at times seems senseless. One television anchor (perhaps hyperbolically) even calls Weiner’s behavior “spousal abuse.”

IFC Films’ “Weiner” is fascinating and gruesome. It’s a rare opportunity to see a politician up close, in his own home, explaining his mistakes openly. At the very end of the film, Weiner speculates that he has a “virtually unlimited ability to fuck up things.” Who ever said that politicians aren’t honest?

Contact Sarah Coduto at [email protected].