Sexting, Lies, and Videotape
Midway through the painfully exhaustive documentary Weiner, the title subject’s wife, Hillary Clinton’s adviser Huma Abedin, is puttering around her Manhattan kitchen, fumbling through an array of flatware in an effort to give a semblance of normalcy to her day. One of the documentarians filming Anthony Weiner’s surreal and delusional 2013 campaign for the mayoralty of New York, asks Abedin how she feels in the wake of the latest bombshell revelation involving her husband.
Weiner had infamously resigned his New York congressional seat in 2011 after being caught out in a series of sexting messages with women he’d never met—and now, in full view of the documentary team trailing his every move, the former congressman had been exposed yet again for the same puerile, oversexed pastime. And just to compound the gratuitous humiliation of it all, Weiner had been conducting these latest under the absurd Twitter nom-du-mischief “Carlos Danger,” permitting the headline writers at the New York Post to phone in their work for a solid month.
As Abedin tries to formulate an answer to the simple question of how she’s feeling, her serenely composed face crumbles for a moment. She mutters something about living in a nightmare, and returns to the fugitive solace of the kitchen cupboard.
A few scenes later, in the back seat of a campaign Town Car, the same documentary team is trying to get a similar answer out of Weiner himself—the big preening dick at the center of an eternally recurring race to the cultural and political bottom. “You seem to have some trouble talking about your feelings,” the candidate’s interlocutor ventures—which earns him a withering reply from Weiner about how a fly-on-the-wall documentarian shouldn’t be in the business of handing out psychological counsel. Weiner then fumbles ahead with some provisional rationales for his shameless, manipulative, dishonest behavior—all while inhaling a takeout Asian lunch from a plastic carton.
These parallel set pieces are, in a sense, all you need to know about the colossally fucked-up world of Weiner—a chillingly blasé record of colliding human appetites, puffed-up, dissected, and puffed-up again by the new media landscape, in an indistinguishable blur of tabloid sensationalism and social-media titillation. Even after all the symbolic breakthroughs on the path to substantive gender equality—most recently, the effective clinching of the Democratic presidential nomination by Abedin’s boss—men are defiantly brandishing their errant sexual conduct as a perverse form of moral self-validation. And women are left all but sobbing in the kitchen.
The same basic dynamic plays out, in excruciating real time, over and over again, throughout Weiner. Directed by Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman (who once worked as a staffer for the young congressman), the film depicts the Weiner family’s travails as the campaign slogs on to its squalid endgame—wherein the former Democratic frontrunner comes in dead last in the primary with 4.9 percent of the vote. We see Weiner imploring Abedin to come out and vote with him and their son on primary day. All she has to do, he explains in high-paternalist cluelessness, is to stand beside him “like a normal candidate’s wife.” Though she says nothing, another pained flash of Abedin’s eyes clearly conveys the emotional translation of this directive: You’re expecting me to publicly die inside so that you can maintain the illusion of your own self-respect. Needless to say, Weiner goes to the polling station stag (albeit with the couple’s toddler son in tow)—and lies to the press about Abedin having a last-minute conflict in Hillaryland.
After all the symbolic breakthroughs on the path to gender equality, men are brandishing their errant sexual conduct as a perverse form of moral self-validation.
And like the return of the repressed, the elements of the candidate’s Carlos Danger alter ego keep resurging into the media spotlight, tipping the precarious bid for Weiner’s political redemption back into the lowest brand of salacious farce. Never has the ugly social-media sobriquet “viral” been better suited to a news story. On the same election day that began with Abedin’s repudiation of the abashed candidate’s spouse script, Weiner finds himself effectively locked out of his own campaign headquarters. One of his sexting partners—an Indiana-college-student-turned-porn-performer named Sydney Leathers—has staked out the ground-floor bar in the same building where Weiner is supposed to make his concession speech at the behest of radio shock jock Howard Stern. A Weiner campaign aide assembles no less than three contingency plans for smuggling the candidate into the building without forcing an awkward face-to-face confrontation with Leathers—and even so, the consensus plan, which is to rush the twice-disgraced politico through the back room of an adjoining McDonalds, nearly results in a close encounter of the Leathers kind. Here we see another woman’s face collapse in a different way, as Leathers realizes that her 15 minutes of fame have ingloriously expired in the foyer of a fast-food restaurant.
In a closing interview, Weiner—always game for another self-righteous turn before the media—makes a last stab at some camera-ready introspection. He wonders aloud whether the “transactional” character of most political interactions makes politicians—already suckers for the opiate of public adulation—particularly suited to the anonymous, seemingly cost-free sex play of the social mediasphere. It is, in many ways, a convincing performance. But it is, yet again, all about the unsated, and evidently insatiable, appetites of Anthony Weiner—for sadly formulaic sex talk, for selfies of bulging underwear, for public sympathy, for the approval of the voting public. For anything, really, but emotional maturity and accountability for his sadly self-undermining actions.