Weiner makers talk about their meaty subject
Utter the name of former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner and you’re likely to summon derisive giggles. Yes, he forcefully argued for medical benefits for 9/11 first responders on the floor of the House of Representatives, but America still remembers him for Tweeting a certain bulge — bad behavior complicated by the fact that he’s married to Hillary Clinton protégé Huma Abedin and has a small son.
Weiner, the new documentary by Elyse Steinberg (the PBS documentary The Trial of Saddam Hussein) and Josh Kriegman (the Emmy-winning series Made), recalls what made its title figure so promising. But it also reveals, with painful intimacy, how his most recent campaign imploded. (Two words: Carlos Danger.) As the filmmakers follow Weiner’s 2013 bid to become New York’s mayor, they balance the familiar story with behind-the-scenes shocks.
The movie won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and opens Friday at Tivoli Cinemas. Speaking to The Pitch by phone from the Big Apple, Steinberg and Kriegman explain what Weiner’s fall could mean for the future of democracy.
The Pitch: Josh, how did your relationship with Weiner change when you went from working for him to covering him as a filmmaker?
Josh Kriegman: I was his district chief of staff for a couple of years when he was in Congress. I then left politics and started working as a filmmaker, and that’s when he had his scandal and resigned. It was after he resigned that we started talking with him about the possibility of him doing a documentary. And that was a conversation that went on for a couple of years, actually, going back and forth before he decided he was going to let us in to make a documentary on the day he decided to announce that he was going to run for mayor.
The historian Sarah Vowell has said that politicians’ strengths are also their weaknesses in other contexts. Do you think that’s true for Anthony Weiner?
Kriegman: Absolutely. One of the central questions that a lot of people come to this story with is this question of why he did what he did. And you do get to hear him reflect on that in the course of the film. One of the things he talks about in the film is the way that these same qualities that really served him well as a politician were the same qualities that ultimately led him to some of the behaviors that led him to problems in other aspects of his life.
For example, he talks about being wired a certain way to need attention, as all politicians are, and thriving in a world of transactional and superficial relationships. And these are qualities that really worked well for him in politics, but then led him to do these things in his private life that led to problems.
He was seeking affirmation. It’s what he acknowledges in the film. He was the kind of person who was looking for affirmation and didn’t necessarily have a good handle on where he was getting it from. And technology and social media made it possible for him to interact with a lot of people in a lot of new ways and ultimately, of course, it led him into trouble.
You manage to make a race whose outcome we know seem suspenseful.
Kriegman: When we started filming this with him on the campaign trail, there was a real sense that no one within the campaign, or no one anywhere watching, knew how it was going to unfold. A lot of people counted him out when he first got into the mayor’s race, and thought he was a joke and it was too soon after his scandal. And within six weeks or so, he was at the top of the polls, and New Yorkers were saying that maybe they could elect him mayor.
As filmmakers, we were in the midst of it all, riding these ups and downs and at first thinking we were capturing an extraordinary comeback story, and then when things changed it went an entirely different direction. As documentarians, in the middle of that circumstance, we knew we were going to capture something pretty extraordinary, without any certainty about where it would go and how it would end up.
What do you think The New York Post and The New York Daily News miss about Weiner while writing headlines like “The Second Coming of Weiner”?
Kriegman: Of course they had a field day with his story and with his name. I don’t know that they’ve ever had more fun with headlines in other stories than they did with Anthony Weiner’s. And that was a big part of the story. In our version of the story, it was important for us to acknowledge that they were doing that, that headline writers and late-night comedians were really enjoying the comedy of it all. Without piling on and just joining in, hopefully, our intention was to go beyond the headlines and to see a more complex and nuanced version of the story.
Steinberg: We also wanted to show the way in which Anthony’s story is emblematic of this shift in news right now to sensationalism and spectacle. Our hope is that our film can speak to how our politics today is often driven by entertainment.
You two reveal how what isn’t in the headlines or usually on camera. For example, you show him in the studio alone having his yelling match with Lawrence O’Donnell, who was actually in another city, so you see Weiner yelling at someone not physically there.
Kriegman: Having those two angles really allowed us to emphasize this theme, which is so central to this film. You watch him colliding into Lawrence O’Donnell in this really sensational way, and the split screen that you see on TV and then you see the side angle, which is actually him alone in the room, sort of almost yelling at the empty air. It really shows a very different angle on this event. It shows how the reality behind the headlines and the cable-news clips and everything that we typically see through the media and how much that reality is different from what we tend to get to see.
It’s easy to wonder if a politician is capable of reacting with a person one-on-one because there’s always a layer of people between the press and a reporter. It’s almost like you stop being a person.
Kriegman: He poses the question of whether the decades of his life as a politician make it harder for him to connect on a deeper level, or is it the other way around? Did he go into politics originally because he already wasn’t connecting on a deeper level, and he needed to find a place where he could thrive in a world of more superficial interactions? I think that’s a really good question.
Mark Sanford, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump have all had sex scandals, but they either survived them or managed to come back. Why hasn’t Anthony Weiner been able to do the same?
Steinberg: There were factors that differentiated Anthony’s scandal. One, you had his name. Two, you also had pictures. The third part was that it was a sexting scandal. That’s new, and I think for some voters it not only seemed wrong, but it also seemed deviant. That could also change as voters get older, and they’re more familiar with the technology.