For a political documentary, timing is everything.
Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s portrait of Anthony Weiner and his 2013 run for mayor of New York encountered a twist that changed the trajectory of the story. The filmmakers were conditioned to expect the unexpected. But even they could not have anticipated the current political climate, which gives their film heightened resonance as it’s released into the circus-like atmosphere of the most unconventional presidential race in recent memory.
“Donald Trump and Anthony Weiner are two different people at opposite ends of the political spectrum. I think Anthony Weiner is more substantive, but both understand one of the fundamental truths about politics in today’s media age, which is that to have a voice you have to put on a show,” says Kriegman during a visit to Boston, where “Weiner” opens on Friday. “This film gives the rare opportunity for a front row seat to see how much this election season is driven by spectacle and the impulse toward entertainment.”
Weiner’s brash style and eagerness to do battle with conservatives on cable news programs may have been entertaining, but revelations of lewd texts and crotch shots prompted his resignation from Congress in 2011. Two years later, Weiner seemed poised for political rebirth. He’d done a contrite People magazine interview and photo spread (“I Feel Like a Different Person”) with wife Huma Abedin, a longtime Hillary Clinton aide, and their baby son, Jordan. But during his second bid to become New York City’s mayor, a new round of even more explicit selfies and text messages surfaced. The ensuing media firestorm derailed Weiner’s bid for redemption.
Kriegman and Steinberg’s cameras track the implosion in real time. Such up-close access was no accident. A Newton native, Kriegman graduated from Yale with two passions: politics and documentary film. “I poked in both directions but ended up working for [Weiner] during his first mayoral campaign in 2005. I traveled with him everywhere, all over New York . . . It was an amazing education in politics and an extraordinary opportunity to get to know him really well.”
Weiner lost that bid, but returned to Congress a rising political star. Kriegman served as Weiner’s chief of staff for a few years before moving into documentary filmmaking. After working with Steinberg on several PBS projects, the pair sought to collaborate on a character-driven verite documentary for their first feature.
“I knew what an interesting and dynamic character Anthony is,” says Kriegman. “We’d stayed in touch over the years. He was thinking of running for mayor again and he was intrigued [by the documentary proposal]. A key part of our intent, hope, and vision for the film was to take this person who’d become a punch line and to capture him as a more complete human being with nuance and complexity.”
Steinberg knew Weiner only through “the [New York] Post headlines and the caricature version,” she says. “Huma had been reduced to a caricature, too. We wanted to call all that into question and go beyond the judgment placed on her and all the other women who stayed in marriages” after they’d been rocked by political scandal.
Besides examining public perception versus private reality, the filmmakers thought they were following “a remarkable comeback story,” says Kriegman, as Weiner rose to the top of the polls in the mayoral primary. That abruptly changed with new allegations that Weiner, using the screen name Carlos Danger, had sent explicit photos and engaged in phone sex with a 23-year-old named Sydney Leathers.
“On the morning that the news broke, I’d showed up at the office, as I’d done for weeks, and started shooting. I was in the room with Anthony, Huma, and the staff and, as you see in film, he kicks everyone out except for me,” Kriegman recalls. “I’m in there filming while they’re on the phone with consultants and I remember thinking, ‘I can’t believe I’m here right now.’ It’s a tricky balance. As a documentarian, you’re emotionally engaged in what’s going on but also kind of removed. You’re doing a job, so there’s a kind of distance you need to foster on some level in order to do it the right way.”
From that point, the filmmakers were chasing “a story in motion,” says Steinberg. “But our intention was the same. We knew going in that we wanted to show the human side of both Anthony and Huma.”
It’s the film’s intimate look at escalating tensions between Weiner and Abedin that gives “Weiner” a scenes-from-a-marriage gravitas, as the couple’s silences and body language speak volumes.
“I love that in the context of a lot of noise in our politics today, what plays most powerfully are the quiet moments, such as the two of them putting their son to sleep while [television] pundits are throwing opinions and judgment around about their marriage,” says Kriegman.
It may all be too close for comfort for its subjects. Kriegman says that despite many invitations, neither Weiner nor Abedin have seen the film. “Anthony doesn’t want to see it. He says he doesn’t want to relive it,” says Kriegman.
But the larger and arguably more important audience is the one shaping a potentially historic election in November. “It’s exciting that our film can be relevant in a discussion of how politics and media functions right now,” Kriegman says.
No doubt there are more twists ahead.Loren King can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.