The most absurdly exhilarating action sequence of 2016 occurs near the end point of “Weiner,” the wildly entertaining documentary about the second fall of Congressman Anthony Weiner. It is Election Night, and Weiner has just lost the New York mayor’s race in grand fashion, garnering less than 5 percent of the vote.
These results, of course, reflect the latest scandal to engulf his political and personal life. Two years after his initial sexting scandal, at the height of his surging campaign, came new examples of explicit online activity, some involving the wonderfully named Sydney Leathers.
She came forward with a battery of wild tales, including phone sex as much as five times a day. This occurred just as Congressman Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin, gave birth to the couple’s first child.
Accusations, photographs, shouting and tears culminate on Election Night, as Weiner is about to arrive at a Manhattan venue for his concession speech. Of course, there’s trouble. Leathers – given the code name “Pineapple” by Weiner staffers – is there, and with camera running is ready to confront the man she’s never met face to face.
A plan is crafted that involves cutting through the McDonald’s next door. Weiner and his wife are rushed into the home of the Big Mac as if fleeing a thunderstorm, while Leathers, clad in a skin-tight red dress and heels, runs after them.
I’m not sure a single sequence could better capture the chaos of Weiner’s fall from grace. Thankfully, directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg were there to capture it all.
In doing so, the filmmakers have created a stunning document of modern political life and social-media-fueled celebrity. It’s a strange, messy, ugly world, but one populated in this case by the startlingly real Weiner and Abedin.
As the film’s opening demonstrates, the world of online media made Weiner a star following an epic anti-GOP rant. He became a rising Democratic star, but the first sexting scandal made short work of that.
However, his wife, longtime Hillary Clinton aide Abedin, stayed by his side. She also encouraged his attempt at political resurrection as a mayoral candidate.
Kriegman and Steinberg capture the couple’s closeness (Abedin to Weiner after a day of campaigning: “I’m not crazy about those pants”) and the still-lingering pain of the past few years. Body language experts will have a field day watching the interactions between husband and wife.
The first half-hour of “Weiner” shows the progress Weiner was making on the campaign trail, and a curious feeling envelops the viewer. You find yourself willing history to change. We know what happened, yet we’re all powerless to stop it.
No one was more powerless than Weiner. When the new sexting details emerge, the congressman seems to physically change from an energetic bundle of energy to a slumping, wide-eyed weirdo.
What follows is an at-times agonizing parade of terse interviews, sad news conferences, silent stares, and angry shouts, along with one of the most tense staff meetings I’ve seen on-screen. (The latter soundtrack also includes the sad cry of Weiner’s infant.)
It’s all car-crash fascinating. Yet it’s undeniably exhausting, too. Perhaps the film’s greatest success is that we understand how it felt to be in the center of the storm.
The worse things become, the farther Abedin (smartly) retreats from view, and the film becomes a tad less interesting. The poised, piercingly intelligent but clearly wounded Abedin is the film’s most intriguing character, and her absence wounds the film. Of course, it’s hard to blame her.
By the time Leathers emerges, it’s clear the race is over. Yet Weiner stayed in to the end. Why? It’s hard to say. Following a shouting match with an angry voter, an elderly man on the street asks a question on everyone’s mind: “Why didn’t he just walk away?”
That wouldn’t be Weiner. While Abedin is the most courageous and strong figure on screen, Weiner himself is not entirely unlikable. He’s the first to admit his idiocy, but it’s difficult to despise a man who responds to a giddy young fan’s comment that he wants to see the congressman’s Wikipedia page with “I would encourage you not to, actually.”
Moments like that make “Weiner” one of the most memorable political documentaries ever made.
3.5 stars (out of 4)
Featuring: Anthony Weiner, Huma Abedin, Sydney Leathers
Directors: Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg
Running time: 96 minutes
Rated: R for language and some sexual material
The lowdown: A documentary examining disgraced New York Congressman Anthony Weiner’s mayoral campaign and the landscape of today’s political landscape.
When: Opens Friday at Dipson Amherst, Dipson Eastern Hills, Screening Room Cinema Cafe.