‘Weiner’ and the Psychology (and Psychopathy) of the Modern Political Candidate

It's easy to ask why Anthony Weiner subjected himself to the scrutiny of another political run. But why does anyone?

The scene you’re waiting for in Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s extraordinary documentary Weiner comes about a third of the way in, and it does not disappoint. The set-up: Anthony Weiner’s past has come back to haunt him. The former New York congressman resigned amidst revelations of inappropriate online exchanges with numerous women; now, a few weeks into what has been a surprisingly robust mayoral campaign, another one has come forward with images and messages even more explicit than those that brought him down. Kriegman and Steinberg’s cameras have the all-access pass, which is how we end up in Weiner’s office with him and wife Huma Abedin on the very afternoon Scandal 2.0 broke. They’re on the phone with an advisor. He’s bristling, embarrassed and upset; she’s got her game face on, but her patience runs out as the conversation continues, shaking her head, tapping her fingers. What is she thinking, asks any reasonable viewer. There’s a long pause as these two people look at each other, before Weiner turns to the camera crew and asks, “Can we just have the room for a second?”

The other question presented by that scene, and many more in Weiner, is why on earth would you put yourself through this. This was, after all, a star in the Democratic party, whose rise (thanks to his heated, viral-friendly confrontations with Republican colleagues) was outpaced only by his fall. That arc is brought back to vivid life in the opening credit sequence, which reminds us of the thrill of those furious floor tirades (“I WILL NOT YIELD!”) and the stinging disappointment of his stupid, stupid crumple (to say nothing of the irritation of his resignation – David Vitter frequented hookers, for Chrissakes, and you didn’t see him resigning). And that’s where Weiner’s story could’ve ended.

By the end of Weiner, it’s hard not to feel like that’s where his story should’ve ended. Instead, two years after his noisy and embarrassing combustion, Weiner entered the race for the Democratic nomination for mayor of New York. It was a long shot, but not an impossibility; everyone likes a comeback story, and Weiner embraced that with his campaign’s pronounced “second chance” narrative. And voters were willing to give him that second chance – he was up in the early polls, and the filmmakers capture images of Weiner crushing it at parades and public events, where competitors who bring up his scandals are booed by impatient constituents. Lesser politicians had recovered from worse, and there was elegant, savvy Huma right by his side, assuring voters she was there because “I love my city, and I believe in my husband.”

Anthony Weiner in "Weiner"

And that was what made the second wave of the scandal so puzzling, both as it happened and as it unfolds in the movie; they (or at least he, but it feels like “they”) knew there were more women out there, knew there were things that hadn’t come out, and courted those revelations anyway. Weiner knew there was at least a possibility of all the garbage coming back down: the public humiliation, the “analysis” of their marriage, the pundits putting Huma under the microscope (watch the news clips that follow her statement at the press conference, as various schmos suck all her agency away and paint her as a victim), the jokes from late night comics, and, most of all, the overall distraction from what was a legitimately progressive campaign full of good ideas.

You see him struggling to keep at least that part of the campaign on the rails; at a campaign event introducing a proposal for a “non-profit czar,” his multiple requests for “on-topic questions” are met with deafening silence, but as soon as a reporter asks to go off-topic, the room explodes. Weiner knows the score, that there’s “a phoniness” to what they’re doing, while acknowledging, “it’s not their fault, that they played their role. It’s the frog and the scorpion.”

That admission comes in a post-campaign interview, but the filmmakers capture moments of equal and greater candor throughout the film. Early on, they’re funny, off-hand moments, like Huma questioning his choice of pants (“They’re lightweight,” he shrugs, “I need a lightweight trouser”). But after all the embarrassment, the closed-door strategy sessions, the public surmising over their relationship and motivations, we end up seeing something less like The War Room and more like An American Family, chronicling the slow-motion dissolution of a power couple. Huma’s brave face melts; she disappears into the background, and he scrambles to explain away her absences at campaign events. He tells her to leave a commercial shoot a few minutes before him, “because someone might think you’re married to me.” One morning, Kriegman asks how she’s doing, and she smiles, “It’s like living a nightmare,” but she doesn’t look like she’s joking.

And so on. In detailing such cringe-inducing moments, I’m perhaps as culpable as the loathsome daily reporters who keep asking the same dumb questions, which underlines the point that in a story like this, no one comes out looking particularly good – not the media, not the campaign (which nets a humiliating 4.93% of the vote), not desperate other woman Sidney Leathers (who tries to chase him through a McDonald’s to his final campaign event, in the film’s most Veep-like sequence), not Abedein, and certainly not Weiner.

Anthony Weiner and Huma Abedin in "Weiner"

Yet what Kriegman and Steinberg put across most vividly in Weiner is (for a viewer with this political disposition, at least) a mixture of sympathy and exasperation for the candidate, and there are moments where Weiner at least flirts with the truth behind opening oneself up for a second round of public flogging. In one, he surmises that “the same constitution that I had, that made me do the thing, also gave me the strength to weather this storm,” which is certainly possible; more likely is the possibility that the part of him that “does the thing” also does it because he likes the power of his public profile, and how it makes desirable women respond to him.

Or maybe it’s just that, as he says elsewhere, “Politicians are probably wired in some way that needs attention,” which is not exactly a revelation, but is certainly a timely observation. We are, after all, in the midst of a political season populated by a comically under-qualified narcissist whose own departed staffers note his was meant to be a protest candidacy, but which spiraled into the real thing when he got a load of the rally crowds cheering his name and slogans; a protest candidate on the other side of the spectrum whose mathematically impossible route to the nomination now rests on the very superdelegates his campaign previously demonized; and a Democratic frontrunner whose run seems less about passion and urgency than legacy and obligation. (Trump pops up in Weiner, in an online video wherein the serial philanderer insists, “We don’t want perverts elected in New York City!”)

So maybe it feels bizarre or inexplicable for Weiner and his family to put themselves back into this unforgiving spotlight, but he certainly isn’t the first candidate to do so with questionable motives, or the last – and to his credit, he’s certainly one of the more self-aware. Late in the film, after his defeat, after he childishly departs his election-night party by flipping the bird to the jeering paparazzi, Weiner looks at himself on television and mutters, “I’ve got this virtually unlimited ability to fuck up things.” From behind the camera, Kriegman lobs the other question that haunts this documentary: “Why have you let me film this?” Weiner doesn’t have an answer just then, but by the end of the film, he does. And it’s the right one. He is, after all, a smart guy.

Weiner is out Friday, May 20 in limited release.