In the real world of politics some characters become so exaggerated that we wonder if they could be creations of real moviemakers with a sense of humor. And an edge.
The fascinating documentary Weiner prompts an inevitable question: why would disgraced politician Anthony Weiner agree to open his work, career and family to a documentarian’s invasive lens? After putting so many people through so much, how could this man imagine anything positive would emerge from such a close look? Or could it be – as one staff member suggests – that he never met a camera he didn’t like?
For those graced with short political memories, here are the basics of how Weiner fell from his self-constructed pedestal. Once a well-respected representative from New York City — known for fighting for people who could not speak for themselves — Weiner first became a punchline when he admitted to sending inappropriate text messages (with photos attached) to casual online acquaintances. After resigning from Congress in humiliation – then asking for public and private forgiveness and waiting for people to forget – Weiner used the same media that broadcast his texting habits to reveal his regret and renewed ambition. As many politicians in the past, his belief that people would forgive and forget inspired a jump into the race for Mayor of New York. As voters, friends and family soon discovered, however, old texting habits can be tough to change, as Weiner soon returned to the role of villain in a new chapter of a familiar narrative.
This fascinating film uses the camera to capture the moments of triumph or disgrace from inside Weiner’s home, office and ego. Without apologizing for intrusion, filmmakers Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg make their way into corners of Weiner’s life that most people would reserve for private relationships. But, as the film reveals, this politician doesn’t live by the values of discretion. It’s as if Weiner believes that the more people see the more they will believe, and the more they believe the more they will support. He can’t fathom that he could lose in the end. Denial seems to have a special spot in the Weiner household.
If Weiner becomes his own villain in this melodrama, the film portrays his wife Huma Abedin – a trusted member of Hillary Clinton’s inner circle — as a willing victim. Without showing any sense of agenda, the camera captures the indecision in Abedin’s words and actions that undermine Weiner’s visions of redemption. Without restraint, Kriegman and Steinberg let their cameras reveal the stress that bombshells create, the anger they prompt, the doubts they inspire. Weiner and Abedin emerge as products of a political world so artificial that illusion can actually seem real when captured by a camera.
What makes everything we see so bitterly absurd, however, is Weiner’s sense of awe of his mission and potential. His story, so effectively captured by brilliant documentarians, reminds us that any politician — no matter the statements of humility or acts of generosity — can fall victim to the temptations of ego. On both sides of this camera, truth remains stranger than fiction.
Content: High. Not since The War Room has a documentary so perfectly captured the soul of a political ambition.
Entertainment: High. With their ability to maneuver inside the politician’s ego, filmmakers Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg create an instant political classic.
Message: High. With its layered examination of how a politician’s ego can work, the film teaches us as much about process as outcome.
Relevance: High. At a time when we rely on politicians to reveal truth, the film’s revelations timely and essential.
Opportunity for Dialogue: High. After you share this film with your older teenagers, talk about the potential impact of politicians on how we think, live and believe.
(Weiner is rated R for “language and some sexual material”. The film runs 96 minutes. It is showing in theaters in New York City as well as On Demand.)
Five Popcorn Buckets
How Documentaries Love Politics
The brilliance of the documentary Weiner reminds us how much we learn at the movies when cameras explore the egos of famed politicians. As much as we may savor fictional accounts of what happens behind the scenes, reality can offer quite a slice of life. Here are a few of the best.
The War Room
With the Clintons continuing to be a force in American politics, this examination of the 1992 campaign fascinates with its early looks at the machine behind the victors. While we don’t see much of Bill and Hillary, we learn a great deal of the power supporting the power, especially the commanding presence of James Carville and George Stephanopoulos. Few fictional films about politics sizzle on screen like this.
The Fog of War
In the 1960s, Robert McNamara emerged as a Secretary of Defense with a clear narrative about the political and military threats in Southeast Asia. This self-defined hawk – who came to public service from the leadership ranks of the automobile industry – later changed his tune about the reasons given to the public for the commitments of resources and lives. The film never strays in its search for truth amidst so many exaggerations.
Leave it to the great documentarian Ken Burns to create an ultimate look at the nation’s first political dynasty. During some 14 hours of film, the filmmaker traces the roots of power among three iconic figures, President Theodore, President Franklin and First Lady Eleanor, strong personalities bound of blood, love and ambition. As Burns reminds us, the better we understand the subtleties of history, the more prepared we can be for what we cannot yet see.
Of recent political figures most challenging to understand, the defeated candidate Romney may top the list. What does actually go on inside a man who never could quite articulate the reasons to believe and support? And how much of our perception was based on the man we had to imagine because he revealed so little? This perceptive study – produced by Netflix – suggests how a real house of cards can emerge around a mysterious politician.
The Making of the President
Back in the 1960s, a Presidential election did not feel complete until author Theodore H. White documented the wins and losses, the heroes and villains, the successes and disappointments. Three of his stories – about the elections of 1960, 1964 and 1968 – offer amazing accounts of the context in our country that produced such unlikely leaders. Pay close attention to how much Lyndon Johnson changes from eager candidate, to accidental president, to reluctant executive.
Now, with Weiner, a new portrait of political ego enters the gallery. And we’ll remember this one for a long time.
See you at the movies.