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'Weiner' Offers A Riveting, Close-Up View Of A Scandal In Progress


This is FRESH AIR. There's a new documentary following Anthony Weiner's mayoral race in New York. Weiner had resigned from Congress in 2011 for a sexting scandal. And at first, his campaign for mayor looked like a comeback story until a second scandal broke. David Edelstein has a review of "Weiner."

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The behind-the-scenes campaign documentary "Weiner" is a cross between "The War Room," in which resourceful operatives steer a scandal-ridden but confident candidate to victory, and "The Blair Witch Project," in which everyone runs around screaming and dies. It's a modern political tragicomedy. The movie begins in 2013, after Weiner has declared himself a candidate for mayor of New York and after a New York Times Magazine cover story is portrayed him and his wife, Huma Abedin, as firmly reconciled and ready for a comeback. Co-director Josh Kriegman once worked for Weiner, and he and his partner Elyse Steinberg had amazing access.

The first half of the film is surprisingly upbeat. The candidate seems generous, like a man who has nothing to hide, and his wife, who appears at rallies and calls donors, is even more likable. From her employer and mentor, Hillary Clinton, Huma has learned to hold her cards close to the vest. But she seems less dodgy than thoughtfully self-possessed. Despite the relentless media ridicule, Weiner's message of economic populism takes hold. He jumps ahead in the polls, while Bill de Blasio, his closest opponent ideologically, runs dead last - good times. And then a porn actress named Sydney Leathers releases explicit photos and texts he'd sent after he'd left Congress, when he was supposedly working on his marriage. And he and his beleaguered communications director Barbara Morgan sit in the back of a car discussing what he'd said to whom when.


BARBARA MORGAN: Had there been multiple online exchanges with multiple people, or was it just this one?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...Template for misinformation.

MORGAN: Can I just say multiple people, or is it just this one?

ANTHONY WEINER: I think you've got - I mean, there was more than one. So I think - I think we've got to answer the question. The problem was that a series of interviews that I did when I got in the race were after this. And people asked is the number still the same? I think I said to - six to Dominick (ph) and then cleaned it up in subsequent interviews because I knew that was a problem. The question is do we answer it or not? I think we have to answer these questions.

MORGAN: I think we have to answer because if somebody else comes out and we don't...

WEINER: So OK - so we have to give them an answer.

MORGAN: So I'm going to say...


MORGAN: ...It was more than one. Do you believe you're suffering from any sort of addiction?

WEINER: Umm...

EDELSTEIN: Do you believe you're suffering from any sort of addiction? Umm - you might've said no, don't cut away there. What does he say? Spoiler alert - nothing. Weiner does apologize - or at least allude to past apologies. But he declines to do public self-analysis. During noisy standoffs with reporters and hecklers, the camera lingers on Huma, who wears the traditional injured spouse's brave face. You scrutinize her eyes and body language for signs of cracking and if you're like me feel a bit like a voyeur. Sure, she and Weiner put themselves out there, but this is medieval, like bear-baiting. It's amazing that Weiner didn't pull the plug on the documentary when that second scandal hit. But he's a public man, so public that he can barely conceive of a life outside the spotlight. Maybe too he wanted the filmmakers around as protection from his wife, who's thereby forced to express herself via quivers and the occasional eye roll. I'm bound to say I found Weiner less hateful than pitiable. Unlike many politicians, he's not a confident liar. He squirms; he ties himself up in linguistic knots.

He seems to know we we'll ultimately see through him. That's what makes his attackers look so gratuitously mean. He's already a man on edge, primed to explode. In the best scene, he's home watching an insanely contentious interview he just did on MSNBC and trying to get Huma to tell him he'd done well. Huma - who looks like she's just been hit by a truck - she leaves him alone with his TV. And the last act is borderline absurdist. The arrival of Sydney Leathers, who, egged on by Howard Stern on his radio show, positions herself to accost the candidate on primary night with photographers in tow. Can he dodge her? It gives new meaning to the phrase of run Weiner run. The documentary Weiner is a tabula rasa. It will be taken differently by different people, as everything from an indictment of a Hillary Clinton ally to a portrait of spousal abuse to proof that men who run for office are inherently unstable. To me, it's more revealing of the nature of modern documentaries. The movie conjures up Oscar Wilde's definition of scandal, gossip made tedious by morality. But it also suggests that unprecedented access to people in the throes of scandal can be utterly riveting.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. He reviewed the new documentary Weiner. On Monday's show, an onstage interview with Ahmir Questlove Thompson, the drummer and co-founder of the band The Roots, the house band for "The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon." He's got some great stories to tell us. Join us.


DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior to producer today is Sam Briger. Our technical engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Edelstein
David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.