56 years ago, the documentary “Primary” offered a then-unprecedented look behind the scenes of a political campaign. Produced by Direct Cinema pioneer Robert Drew and shot by non-fiction filmmaking legends Richard Leacock and Albert Maysles, and utilizing new, more mobile equipment, it afforded a ground-level look at the race between John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey for the 1960 Wisconsin Democratic Party primary.
24 years ago, directors Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker got even more unfettered access to BIll Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign to make “The War Room,” which made stars of strategist James Carville and communications director George Stephanopoulos. In the years since, we’ve grown accustomed, inured even, to the lack of traditional media filters between voters and candidates in an era of omnipresent cameras, hot mics, and “gotcha” journalism.
Even so, the new documentary “Weiner” makes those once-revolutionary films seems like something from North Korean state television. This fly-on-the-wall look at disgraced Congressman Anthony Weiner’s 2013 quest to become the mayor of New York City will confirm every cynical thought you’ve ever had about the narcissism and desperation of the political class or the piranha-like instincts of today’s media. In other words, it’s morbidly hilarious. Some of this stuff would fit right in on the HBO show “Veep,” except it might not be believable enough.
You remember Anthony Weiner, right? Firebrand liberal Democrat from Brooklyn. Frequent guest on “The Daily Show” for his old school buddy John Stewart. Accidental poster of bulging briefs photo to his public Twitter account. Husband to Hillary Clinton adviser Huma Abedin. Possessor of one of the classic “guilty dog” faces in American politics.
All that, though, is prelude, as Weiner invites a camera crew along to observe what he imagines will be his comeback trail, his opportunity to put all those headlines that use his surname as a punchline behind him. One of the directors, Josh Kriegman, worked for Weiner for years before becoming a filmmaker, which helps explain how he was able to garner such access.
It’s not long, though, before a second sexting scandal erupts, forcing the campaign into instant crisis mode. (It reminded me of Chris Rock’s joke about Michael Jackson: “We loved Michael so much we let the first kid slide!”) From there, your perceptions of Weiner will likely whipsaw between a seething, sulfuric contempt for his short-sighted, juvenile stupidity and a cringing, reluctant empathy for a guy whose misdeeds, gross as they were, didn’t hurt anyone but himself and his family.
That family, of course, includes Huma Abedin, whose job as one of Hillary Clinton’s top aides can’t help but connect Weiner’s sordid saga to that of Bill Clinton (who actually officiated and Anthony and Huma’s wedding–you can’t make some of this up!). Both men embody the JFK paradox: principled, passionate politicians whose personal peccadilloes serve as inevitable, tragic, almost Shakespearean flaws.
As Weiner’s campaign staggers towards its surreal, circus-like finish (which includes one of the women he sexted literally stalking him on election night), it becomes increasingly difficult to understand why he doesn’t just drop the mic and exit stage left. And yet, it becomes increasingly admirable, somehow, that he doesn’t. Maybe it’s just an aspect of whatever personality disorder he suffers from, but his willingness to take the press heat, always trying to steer the conversation back to housing and other economic issues, demonstrates a sort of strength we don’t see often enough in public figures.
With politicians and their flaws on the top of everyone’s minds, this could be either the perfect time to release “Weiner” (which one the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at January’s Sundance Film Festival), or the worst possible time. Either way, it has the feel of a film that, like “Primary” or “The War Room,” will function as a time capsule for future generations. This is how we do politics now, and these are the people who do it, for better or for worse, til death do we part.
(100 minutes, rated R, opens Friday, June 10, at Cinema 21) GRADE: A-