In the movie “Weiner,” former U.S. congressman Anthony Weiner displays the proper reluctance that’s supposed to mark the beginning of a hero’s journey. “This is the worst,” he says into the camera in the opening shot of the film. “I don’t know why I let them film me,” he tells a voter from atop a Citi Bike in midtown Manhattan.
So far, so good.
Strangely, though, unlike Siegfried or Luke Skywalker, Weiner doesn’t protest against his inconceivable destiny in the face of insurmountable odds. Instead he grumbles at the small high-definition camera that trails after him as he mounts his ill-fated political comeback on the streets of New York.
“Why are you letting us film this?” we hear a cameraman call out to him at one point.
So why did Weiner let himself be filmed? I’ll try to field that question for him, since, on the 2008 presidential campaign, it was my team that turned those small HD cameras on another unlikely political hero, Barack Obama who then was a U.S. senator from Illinois. Showcasing our handsome and brilliant candidate’s winning personality in backstage and off-the-cuff moments showed the electorate a man who behaved the same on and off camera. And the electorate liked what they saw. (They liked it twice, in fact, and by estimable margins.)
Authenticity has always been the currency of American politics; those small HD cameras are just our favorite device of the moment. Their ubiquity can be a golden ticket for those willing to be themselves and, perhaps more importantly, those who know themselves.
The list of politicians who can forgo self-consciousness before the camera is short, and — let’s be clear — you don’t have to be the nicest person to make it work. Just look at New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who doesn’t take the Obama approach. On the contrary, he’s more of an instigator, and people are definitely drawn to his in-your-face rants about private schools and teachers unions. The hollering works because that’s just who Christie is — not the kind of guy you want to confront about where he sends his kids to school: “I’ll tell you where, none of your damn business!” Though Christie’s frank brashness wasn’t enough to propel him to the White House, it did serve as an effective model for the take-no-prisoners YouTube persona that Weiner embraced when he was in the House.
In “Weiner,” directors Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman skillfully pack huge chunks of exposition into blissfully swift montages near the opening of the film. We see the congressman impassioned and angry on the floor of the House, deft and confident in media appearances — occasionally abrasive and irritating, true, but always himself. This is Anthony Weiner the liberal lion, and clearly how the man sees himself, and what he hoped those unobtrusive HD cameras would capture.
So it’s no real mystery why Weiner granted the cameras complete access to his life. Unfortunately, he can’t sustain the heroic-fighter performance indefinitely, especially after a messy scandal hits.
But Weiner tries; Lord, how he tries. He tries not to lose patience with staff mistakes, thinking we don’t see the ferocity in his eyes — the ferocity that, if not for the scandal, he wouldn’t have hesitated to verbalize.
Like a joke in the mouth of an actor who doesn’t understand it, the forced yes-please-and-thank-you politeness of Weiner is glaringly dissonant to any observer. The eyes tell a different story from the words.
Weiner the man is at his most honest, and “Weiner” the film is at its most compelling, when he is lying or when he recalls lying. It’s both instructive and painful to watch him parsing and stalling during what he clearly knows should be a full-on straightforward confession.
In these moments, we can’t help but feel sympathy for Weiner’s quote-unquote authentic self; like every three-dimensional character, he reminds us of ourselves, but not necessarily of the man who refused to yield the floor to a Republican Party determined to deny benefits to 9/11 first responders.
There are few people capable of maintaining a meticulously constructed public persona at all times; it takes an unusual force of personality. I often describe Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich as “political athletes” because they belong to this group of ultra-elite performers. I suspect Donald Trump may be one as well. You’d need to belong to this exclusive club to invite in a documentary crew (like cops and vampires, you have to invite them in) and confidently know that the end product will project the proper message.
Weiner’s opening grumble at the camera is the first tip-off. He isn’t totally confident about his role in the project, so he tries to make a joke out of it, rather like how an uncoordinated groom makes a joke out of the first dance at his wedding instead of committing earnestly to an uncomfortable experience.
That isn’t to say the film doesn’t succeed in capturing what Weiner wants. His measured and often stoic responses to New Yorkers angrily berating him for off-color texting at a town hall are the stuff comeback stories are made of, as is his defense of his wife, Huma Abedin, at a campaign stop in an Orthodox Jewish deli. But all the Weiner-being-Weiner moments happen in public. Even his famous fight with MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell (captured and delightedly presented by the filmmakers) happens on the air, not in the green room. If Weiner gives someone the finger, chances are he’ll do it in front of the press, or better yet, to the press.
Weiner just doesn’t seem to pull off the same performances in private. He doesn’t even come close to his young staffer who announces, with over-the-top Hollywood gravity, “We are executing the McDonald’s plan” seconds before they indeed execute the hilariously slapstick McDonald’s plan in an effort to avoid Sydney Leathers, with whom Weiner had his notorious exchange of sexts.
Weiner’s private moments, from the direct-to-camera confessions to the vérité glimpses of his home life with Abedin, are less powerful. They seem to reveal a man who wants to be out in public mixing it up again, a man who is prepared to do whatever it takes — even if it entails doing “the worst” and inviting a camera crew along for the ride.
Arun Chaudhary, the White House’s first videographer, is the author of “First Cameraman: Documenting the Obama Presidency in Real Time” (Times Books, 2012). He is currently the creative director of Revolution Messaging and of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign. Twitter, @ArunChaud