Oh, Anthony Weiner …

by Stephanie Merry

Anthony Weiner’s name was always an easy punch line – in a grade-school insult kind of way. But the former congressman all but gift-wrapped the joke when he accidentally broadcast a picture of his bulging boxer briefs on Twitter in 2011. An unfortunate moniker became a fitting one. The New York Post had a field day.

But there’s more to the man than extramarital sexting. That’s what documentarians Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg set out to prove with “Weiner,” a fascinating account of the Brooklyn native’s failed bid to become New York City’s mayor in 2013.

Before he was a filmmaker, Kriegman worked in politics as Weiner’s chief of staff in the mid-aughts. But before you assume that the movie was a favor to Kriegman’s former boss, consider this: Weiner isn’t thrilled about the documentary, which has been gaining buzz since winning the grand jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

He doesn’t want to talk about it, he said by email – he hasn’t even seen the movie. He elaborated a bit on “Larry King Now” in February, complaining that the filmmakers used clips of his wife, Huma Abedin, without her permission. Of course, there’s considerable interest in seeing her onscreen because she’s long been one of Hillary Clinton’s closest confidantes. And there’s something inexplicably gripping about watching the inner workings of a struggling marriage.

But there was also his pride.

“Look, I know how the story ends,” Weiner told King. “I’m not eager to watch it and relive it.”

Steinberg and Kriegman began working together a few years ago, directing a PBS special about prison reform. But they were both interested in a verité-style character study. Kriegman thought Weiner would be a good subject but didn’t think it would pan out after he floated the idea and got a tepid response. But on the day Weiner announced he was going to run for mayor (for the second time; he also ran in 2005), he texted Kriegman and asked whether the director wanted to come over with a camera.

Steinberg had never met Weiner before he agreed to the documentary. Like most people, she had only a vague notion of the man beyond the salacious details she picked up through headlines.

“What I discovered by meeting Anthony and looking through the footage was that my preconceived notions and expectations were not in line with reality and who he is,” she said over the phone recently. “He was a much more human, complex person.”

In the documentary, Weiner comes across as many things: egotistical, funny, dishonest, cocky, self-effacing, charismatic and pathetic, among other descriptors. One moment he’s joyously waving a rainbow flag to the delight of a gay pride parade crowd, and the next he’s getting into a screaming match during a campaign stop with a voter who calls him a scumbag. “Takes one to know one, jackass,” Weiner counters before the men launch into an ugly verbal brawl.

For a while, Kriegman and Steinberg thought they might be filming a redemption story. Weiner was leading in the polls, and the public clearly didn’t care about his internet habits. On the contrary, when other candidates brought up Weiner’s indiscretions during debates, the crowd would start booing.

“And then, of course, new revelations from his scandal resurfaced, and the whole thing went in a very different direction,” Kriegman said.

A 22-year-old named Sydney Leathers came forward and revealed that she had exchanged explicit messages with Weiner after he had copped to the initial round of sexting.

To the filmmakers, it didn’t matter whether Weiner was winning or losing. They were less interested in where the story went than how to best capture their subject.

Steinberg and Kriegman said the response to the movie has been varied. Some people see Weiner as a sympathetic character; others remain disgusted by his lack of self-control and peculiar sexual habits. To some, he will always be the cyberspace flasher who deserved to be an easy target for late-night talk show hosts.

The filmmakers asked Weiner why he thought people have been so hard on him.

“I lied to them,” he says in the movie. Then after a few moments of thought: “And I have a funny name.”


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