For all Weiner's focus on the mayoral campaign, on the media everywhere, and on Anthony Weiner, you're never not thinking of his wife, Huma Abedin.
WeinerDirector: Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg
Cast: Anthony Weiner, Huma Abedin
Studio: Sundance Selects
US date: 2016-05-20 (Limited release)
"Putting yourself out there is hard." As Huma Abedin addresses a living room full of Anthony Weiner's would-be supporters, her face is a perfect mask. She goes on to assure her listeners that she has faith in her husband, that she believes in him. Her speech is brief, maybe 90 seconds, and then she steps off to the side as Weiner sweeps into the frame, his speech longer and faster and louder." If she were the candidate, " he smiles, "I'd be getting crushed."
The irony of his observation cannot be overstated. Weiner is running for the 2013 Democratic nomination for New York City's mayor, a campaign that you already know ended in spectacular failure. And yet the camera in Weiner turns -- for a moment -- back to Abedin. She watches him. She doesn’t smile. And you're transfixed.
Made by former Weiner chief of staff Josh Kriegman with Elyse Steinberg, Weiner shows its titular subject a lot. He speaks in interviews, at press conferences, with his staff, and to New Yorkers, in crowds and one on one. If he's not always assured, he is mostly quick and argumentative, ready to take on whoever comes at him, to answer questions, to make his case. The campaign, he says, is undertaken as a joint decision by him and Abedin, a calculation to allow them to restore the rhythm of their lives after the sexting scandal that brought on his resignation from Congress. A New York Times Magazine cover story trumpets the comeback. They're ready, Weiner says in the film, to "get out of the defensive crouch," adding that running for mayor seems the best way.
Even as you might wonder about that assessment, whether he's "fit" to run or whether he knows why he's doing it, you see how eager he is for the fights, if not necessarily the taunts and the trivialization. "The punch line of me is true," he admits, "I did those things, and I did a lot of other things."
The film, in select theaters 20 May and on VOD 26 May, reminds you -- and lets Weiner remind you -- of some of those other things, with brief clips of his hard-charging speeches on behalf of 9/11 first responders, the middle class, and Obamacare. But for all the focus on Weiner, you're aware of Abedin, on and off screen, in the forms of their young son Jordan, their apartment and even their lumpy orange cat.
These images don't tend to show Weiner and Abedin together, but rather, on opposite sides of the frame, his face fierce, hers dubious, his shirtsleeves rolled, her arms crossed. "I'm not going to do this if you're going to be unpleasant," she instructs him during a session with the staff. He nods and rolls on, less unpleasantly.
They've got a pattern, or at least that's what you might guess from what you see on screen. As much as both Weiner and Abedin insist the marriage is their business, they embark on a project that inevitably makes it public, again. As much as the filmmakers might think their documentary concerns the comeback campaign, they've got a new project when more stories about Weiner's sexting as "Carlos Danger" emerge.
Explode might be a better word for what happens here. In one moment, you're seeing time-lapse sequences and montages of the headquarters expanding and adorned with banners, "Team Weiner" members busy on the phones, crowds gathering at sidewalk speeches. In the next moment, Weiner's the subject of threats and analysis, as well as some stalking by one of the sexting partners, Sydney leathers, urged to confront him by Howard Stern (footage of Ms. Leathers' thwarted attempt to catch Weiner at an event is almost cartoonish, part harrowing and part horrific, as the film cuts back to Weiner and his wife, huddled in a hallway, waiting for the chance to get away in a car).
When the news breaks, Weiner looks caught, in more than one way. In an office with his senior staff and Abedin, he does his best to speed-talk the coming strategy, the cycle and the end of it, and then he stops, looks at his people and says, "Can we just have the room for a second?" They file out, and he remains behind with Abedin -- and the camera. As they drop their heads to consult, you hear them. He asks, "Do you know the timing of this?" She nods, "It's when you and I were talking about getting separated."
This feels like too much access, like you're peeping in on a scene that you'd rather not, that there's something wrong, not only with Weiner but with all of this, his ambition, politics, media. This also feels like a show, like part of a campaign but for something other than the nomination. You can't know what's going on between them, or what's already happened. If you can't fathom how they come to their choices, you do at least see the costs, the past that won't stay in the past and the damage on their faces.
When she speaks in public again, at the instantly notorious July 23 press conference. He speaks, as he must, and then she does, apologizing for being nervous, as it's her first time doing a press conference. She smiles, enchanting. Journalists fill the room, on the floor, in the doorways, in front of and behind the couple, cameras click, bulbs flash.
She leans toward the mic and reads from a paper. "We discussed all of this before he decided to run for mayor" she says, "So really what I want to say is, I love him, I have forgiven him, I believe in him, and as we have said from the beginning, we are moving forward."
You can't look away. Even if you've seen the scene before, even if you're too aware of its painfulness and its bizarre theatrics, even if you cringe at the tabloidization of politics that has only ballooned since 2013, you can't look away. What can she be thinking?
Certainly, you can ask the same of Weiner, as Kriegman, does late in the film. “Why have you let me film this?” he asks, but what could anyone say? Even the question seems reductive at this point. Weiner shifts and says little, probably too fast. In the background, Abedin sits at the end of a long table, a pizza box before her, a slice on her plate. Her son's in the next room, she's got a big day tomorrow.
She remains at the back of the frame, she says nothing. You might think she's exactly right.