The big carnival: Weiner ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 11, 2016)

In my 2011 review of George Clooney’s political drama, The Ides of March, I wrote:

I suppose that is the message of this film (politics is all awash in the wooing). The art of seduction and the art of politicking are one and the same; not exactly a new revelation (a narrative that goes back at least as far as, I don’t know, Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”). The politician is seduced by power. However, the politician first must seduce the voter. A pleasing narrative is spun and polished, promises are made, sweet nothings whispered in the ear, and the voter caves. But once your candidate is ensconced in their shiny new office, well…about that diamond ring? It turns out to be cubic zirconium. Then it’s all about the complacency, the lying, the psychodramas, and the traumas. While a lot of folks do end up getting ‘screwed’, it is not necessarily in the most desirable and fun way. 

In Weiner, Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s no-holds-barred documentary recounting Anthony Weiner’s 2013 run for NYC mayor, their subject waxes rhetorically:

Do my personal relationships suffer because of the superficial and transactional nature of my political relationships-or is it the other way around? Do you go into politics because you’re not connecting on that other level? […] Politicians probably are wired in some way that needs attention. […] It is hard to have normal relationships.”

To which your humble movie reviewer can only append: “Is there an echo in here?”

So, are those driven to willingly throw themselves into that shark tank we call ‘politics’ doing so to compensate for an inability to connect with (or commit to) someone else on a personally meaningful level? Or is it neediness, insecurity, and/or narcissism? Perhaps they are gluttons for punishment? Wait, that’s too cynical; surely, it must be attributable to a sense of altruism, patriotism or a sincere desire to devote one’s life to public service?

Of course I’m being coy; you and I know that if we’re referring to human beings, the answer is “all of the above”. While individual politicians are occasionally equated with saints, politicians and saints are mutually exclusive. Two lessons I’ve learned from films:

  • “Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” – from Chinatown
  • “Well…nobody’s perfect!” – from Some Like it Hot

Kriegman and Steinberg’s film raises a number of related questions; the most obvious one being: should ‘we’, as constituents, be willing to forgive the personal indiscretions (barring prosecutable criminal offenses) of those who we have voted into public office? Should we view that as a personal betrayal? After all, if making boneheaded decisions in one’s love life was a crime, I’d bet that there would be barely enough politicians left outside of prison to run the country. Then there’s the existential question: WTF were you thinking?!

 The filmmakers were given remarkable access to Weiner, his family and 2013 campaign staffers during the course of his ill-fated mayoral run (not really a spoiler, as I am assuming you’ve become familiar with the phrase ‘New York City mayor Bill de Blasio’). I’m guessing their fascination stemmed from the fact that Weiner was putting himself in the ring just two years after a highly publicized “sexting” scandal led to his resignation from the U.S. House of Representatives in 2011.

The resultant public shaming seemed to go on and on; not helped by having a surname synonymous with the part of his anatomy that got him into trouble in the first place. This naturally offered limitless variations of nudge-nudge-wink-wink double entendre for late-night hosts, comedians, and water cooler wiseacres to reap from.

That’s a shame, as the directors remind us with an opening montage highlighting  Weiner’s finer political moments. What tends to get lost in the flurry of sophomoric dick jokes that continue to this day, is that he was one of the first truly fearless progressive firebrands to stand their ground and call out the obstructionist bullshit amidst one of the most toxic partisan takeovers of the House in recent memory.

Which makes me sad. And mad…re-prompting “that” question. WTF were you thinking?!

 If you’re curious to see this film because you think it reveals the answer…don’t waste your time. It’s not for lack of trying by the filmmakers; at one juncture (just as “new” details about the 2011 sexting hit the media) one director asks Weiner outright: “Why have you let me film this?” Weiner doesn’t really have an answer.

However, if you want to see an uncompromising, refreshingly honest political documentary about how down and dirty campaigns can get in the trenches, this one is a must-see. Just be warned-it’s not for the squeamish. Not that there is anything gross, or graphic (aside from a little colorful language here and there). It’s just that some scenes could induce that flush of empathetic embarrassment you experience when a couple has a loud spat at the table next to yours at a crowded restaurant, or when a drunken relative tells an off-color joke at Thanksgiving dinner. It’s equally unfiltered and cringe-inducing.

Putting the deeper political and psychological analysis aside, the film also happens to be entertaining. In fact, it is so sharply observed and cleverly constructed (kudos to editor Eli B. Despres) that it plays like the best political mockumentary that Armando Iannucci never created (even he couldn’t concoct a script this perfect if he tried).

I came away with something else just as unexpected. In light of what is happening right now (and getting more horrifying by the day) regarding the 2016 presidential race, Anthony Weiner’s sexting scandal, humiliating resignation from Congress, and subsequent ill-advised 2013 mayoral run (replete with all of its angst, mudslinging and “Carlos Danger” memes) already feels, in relative terms, like the distant memory of some bygone era when we lived in an America with a kinder, gentler, saner political landscape.

(Currently in limited theatrical release and on PPV)

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