The title of the 2016 documentary Weiner cheekily nods to the sophomoric giggles induced by the surname of its subject, disgraced former Congress member/failed mayoral candidate/living object lesson Anthony Weiner. But if Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s one-of-a-kind political documentary were named for what really defines the film, it would probably be called Huma.
Huma Abedin is a quiet but near-constant presence in Weiner, adopting the same bodily pose so frequently it may as well be on the movie’s poster: Over and over throughout the film, Weiner’s beleaguered wife stands off to the side, observing her husband’s political maneuvering, her arms crossed in a reflexive gesture of self-preservation.
Abedin doesn’t say that much in Weiner — especially compared with the number of words that fall out of Weiner’s ever-flapping mouth — but her presence speaks volumes about her husband’s behavior both in public and in private, Abedin’s role in his political life, and the inherent tension between the two.
That tension culminated in late August with Abedin’s statement that, after standing by her husband (with arms crossed) through two separate high-profile sexting scandals, she is now separating from Weiner, on the heels of a third high-profile sexting scandal.
Abedin has clearly had enough of her husband’s shtick — and indeed, it’s hard to come away from Weiner without the sense that she has spent much of her six-year marriage to Weiner watching a performance she’s grown increasingly tired of seeing from her husband.
Weiner first made waves in January when it received mostly glowing reviews out of the Sundance Film Festival, and the positive buzz surrounding the film has steadily grown over the course of its modest theatrical and digital rollouts. Now Showtime will grant Weiner its TV debut — possibly with a new postscript addressing the most recent scandal and its fallout.
The documentary’s increasing availability is as good a reason as any to check it out; it’s incredibly entertaining. But an even better reason may be that Abedin and Weiner’s separation puts the already beguiling film in an even more interesting context, turning much of its fuzzy subtext into black-and-white text.
And even beyond that, as we near the end of an election season that’s been more rife than usual with scandal — much of it surrounding Hillary Clinton, for whom Abedin has been a top aide for years — Weiner illustrates some subtle but unmistakable points about the expectations placed on women versus men when it comes to navigating a political mire.
Weiner’s campaign was a victim of timing; Weiner the documentary is a beneficiary of it
The most interesting aspect of Weiner, on its surface at least, is the unprecedented access given to the filmmakers by Weiner and his handlers during a fraught period. That’s mostly accidental: Weiner invited cameras into his life as he was mounting his campaign for mayor of New York city, obviously hoping to craft a redemption narrative to overwrite the disgrace of his 2011 resignation from Congress after his first sexting scandal. And for the first act of Weiner, it seems that’s what we’re going to get — until lightning strikes twice, in front of the cameras no less.
Weiner and Weiner turn their attention to damage control once the news of the texts and nude photographs Weiner sent to Sydney Leathers — under the late-night-monologue-ready alias “Carlos Danger” — goes public. Incredibly, Weiner gets a front seat to a second career-ending nosedive, and to his credit, Weiner allows it.
However, one gets the sense watching Weiner the doc that Weiner the man believes he can outrun the bad press through sheer force of will, combined with a certain level of comfort with confrontation that made him a rising star in Congress back in 2007. He’s nothing if not a fighter, even as the odds keep rising against him, and it’s possible, even probable, that he believes up until Weiner’s denouement that he can argue his way out of what looks to be a second ruinous scandal.
But while that may be the political narrative Weiner has built for himself, Abedin’s reactions to her husband’s behavior in the film tell a very different story.
Abedin legitimized Weiner’s reentry into politics, and ended up paying for it
Anthony Weiner is a force of nature in Weiner, a cyclone of activity and speech and energy around which the rest of the movie turns. Many admirers of the film have noted the degree to which the documentary humanizes a man whom many people now see as a walking punchline.
And Weiner is charismatic, to the point where it’s easy to root for him as he mounts his New York mayoral campaign, swatting away a parasitic tabloid press that continually refuses his pleas to stop bringing up sexting and focus on the issues. (The film’s pointed deployment of incendiary tabloid covers helps underline Weiner’s stance that he’s being targeted by headline-happy vultures.)
But Weiner illustrates what a crucial part Abedin played in her husband’s mayoral campaign, on both a physical and symbolic level. “If Huma can forgive Anthony, why can’t a voter forgive Anthony?” one volunteer asks the camera, underlining a common theme of the documentary’s first act: Abedin helped legitimize Weiner’s mayoral campaign and the redemption narrative he was trying to create.
Sure, drama-hungry pundits may have questioned her involvement — “Why does she want the spotlight now?” one sneers — but following Weiner and Abedin on the campaign trail in Weiner, it’s readily apparent that Weiner’s would-be constituents, not to mention his staffers, love Abedin, both for what she represents (forgiveness, loyalty, strength) and for what she does. (One bystander thanks Abedin for her work with Clinton, ending their conversation with a cry of, “Hillary 2016!”)
For her part, Abedin initially seems like a cautious but mostly supportive force, dutifully hitting her marks and making fundraising calls in the name of getting her husband back into public office. (“She was very eager to get her life back together, that I had taken from her,” Weiner tells the camera when explaining his choice to run. “This was the straightest line to do it.”)
That all changes once the second scandal hits, midway through Weiner’s mayoral campaign. When the news breaks, Abedin’s previously guarded bearing in front of the cameras turns downright stony. Already a quiet presence in the film, she clams up even further, but positively radiates anger and humiliation in her husband’s presence.
At this point in the doc, it’s possible to feel sympathy for Weiner as he struggles to evade and spin his bad press, but it’s impossible to not feel sympathy for Abedin, who clearly wants nothing more than to retreat from a spotlight that’s growing ever brighter.
Instead, she must give an excruciating press conference (“I made the decision that it was worth staying in this marriage,” she tells a salivating press corps), hear pundits pity and shame her as “a victim of spousal abuse,” and set an example for campaign staffers who are quickly losing faith in their candidate.
As Weiner chronicles the drama in real time, a secondary story begins to coalesce in the margins, around Abedin: For as hard as it was to be Weiner at the time, it was even harder to be his most prominent supporter.
Weiner’s approach to damage control differs greatly from that of the women in his orbit
Abedin is not the only woman who plays a key role in Weiner, or in Weiner’s campaign. Communications director Barbara Morgan is also a near-constant presence in the film, a preternaturally calm yin to Weiner’s increasingly agitated yang.
Like Abedin, Morgan is in a position where she has to absorb and deflect a lot of the negative energy that is thrown Weiner’s way by the press and the public. We see her being hounded by cameras, and hear about her getting “berated” by a New York Post reporter. Morgan appears to bear all of this as gracefully as can be expected, but she’s clearly frustrated with how Weiner’s extracurricular exploits have affected the campaign.
In one scene around the film’s midpoint, Weiner holds court in a hotel room, surrounded by Abedin, Morgan, and other dejected-looking staffers (the majority of whom are women). He wants to calm their fears, to do what needs to be done to recenter the campaign, but it may be too little, too late, to judge from the expressions on everyone’s faces.
Morgan and Abedin quickly cut through the bullshit, pointing out that meetings like the one they’re having only fuel speculation about the state of Weiner’s campaign; the two women then discuss the “optics” of Morgan leaving the hotel during the meeting.
“I assume those photographers are still outside, so … you will look happy?” Abedin asks Morgan, quickly clarifying, “I’m saying this for you, I don’t want it to be, ‘The press secretary walked out very upset. ...’” Morgan and Abedin must continue to carry themselves as stoic representatives of Weiner, whatever their personal feelings about him may be at the moment.
This scene functions in stark contrast to one that comes shortly after, when Weiner makes a heated, defensive appearance on The Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell. Weiner watches the clip of the interview online with apparent self-satisfaction over standing up to someone he characterizes as “a bully”; Abedin stands to the side, mortified, barely able to watch her husband’s performance.
“Why are you laughing? This is crazy,” she says to him. She tells him to stop watching, to focus on the speech he has to give, to which he replies, “No, this is good, it gets me emotional, puts more fight in me.” Abedin just looks at him, incredulous, before leaving the room with an, “I can’t.”
As the scandal heats up in Weiner, it becomes increasingly clear that Weiner himself thrives on confrontation and argument — perhaps out of necessity. Meanwhile, though, the women who are responsible for legitimizing his crumbling campaign, Abedin and Morgan, have to handle themselves so carefully, to think about “optics” and consider the implications of Weiner’s behavior in a way he seems unable, or unwilling, to do.
Abedin’s connections to Hillary Clinton add another intriguing subtext to Weiner
The contrast between Abedin and Weiner’s reaction to scandal in Weiner reflects a greater gender divide in political discourse, one that we are currently seeing play out in the presidential election — which, remember, Abedin is directly involved in via her work with Clinton.
It’s not a new observation that female politicians (or female public figures in general) have to tread more carefully when defending or promoting themselves to the press and public, lest they be characterized as “shrill” or “bitchy.” There’s an insidious, regressive cultural expectation that women be demure, modest, and, most of all, nice, even in competitive and high-pressure situations — like, say, an election.
It’s a line Hillary Clinton in particular has been struggling to walk this year (and, let’s face it, pretty much her entire career), while her opponent, Donald Trump, can not only get away with hotheaded, defensive behavior but be celebrated for it (by some, anyway).
Weiner’s campaign behavior in Weiner is nowhere near as inflammatory as Trump’s has been, but both men have clearly benefited from the privilege afforded to white men in American society to be confrontational loudmouths when it suits them — a privilege that’s been categorically denied to women.
Abedin and Clinton are also linked, in the popular imagination at least, by the fact that both have faced public humiliation and mockery due to the actions of their philandering husbands, and each stood by her spouse as he faced the political ramifications. Clinton and Abedin’s stories diverge greatly in the details, but the manner in which Clinton is invoked in Weiner — with her comparing Abedin to “a second daughter” — suggests a connection between the two women’s experiences as political wives, as well as political figures in their own right. (The October 28 revelation that the FBI has renewed its investigation of Hillary Clinton’s private email server due to evidence seized in its investigation of Weiner lends a whole new level of intrigue and irony to the whole mess.)
Weiner is not so bold as to make this connection explicit, but in a year when Abedin’s name cannot be invoked without appending “trusted Hillary Clinton aide” to it, the film functions as an accidental meditation on how women endure, and maybe even overcome, political scandal.
Of course, Weiner arguably paid the bigger price for his behavior — he lost the mayoral election in spectacular fashion, and his status as a national punchline is pretty solidified in the wake of his latest sexting mishap and his now-impending divorce. (Hell, his scandals now have their own Wikipedia page.)
And with her high-profile dumping of Weiner, Abedin seems poised to take up the redemption narrative that he sought for herself. There may be a happy ending yet to this story — just not for Weiner.
Weiner doesn’t cast blame; it paints a picture and lets the viewer interpret it
It would be disingenuous to claim that Weiner’s filmmakers were looking to make a specific point about Abedin, or marriage, or politics and gender, when they set out to follow Weiner. And this is all just one interpretation of a film that offers up many possible readings: Weiner is also about hubris, about the nature of scandal, about the media. It’s even a New York story, to a certain extent. And it will always be all those things, and an incredibly entertaining and well-crafted documentary to boot. Whatever your feelings toward Weiner himself, it’s an essential watch.
But the events of this week also make it a timely watch, which is something, considering it was filmed more than three years ago. Weiner’s overall quality is static, but its context is ever-shifting, and with Weiner’s third scandal and Abedin’s departure from his narrative, Weiner just took on some fascinating new context.
Weiner is now airing on Showtime. It is also available to stream via several digital-rental platforms.