the better truth

the better truth

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Weiner (2016)

Weiner (2016)
Of Pineapples and Weiners

You never had a camera in my head!
-Truman Burbank, Main Character in “The Truman Show”

The film “Weiner” documents the former Congressman exposing his private parts in public. The movie also shows this to be one of his least disturbing transgressions. The errant internet tweet of his bulging crotch, followed by his lying, cost him his job as a New York City Representative in Washington DC. “Weiner” begins as a triumphant showcase of his return after the fall. Josh Kriegman, a former chief of staff, convinced the former politician to allow a crew to intimately capture the excitement of his bold decision to run for mayor of New York City. From the candidate’s point of view even a close loss would establish his comeback. Anthony believed Kriegman and his co-director Elyse Sternberg, would sketch a testament to the tenacity of a flawed hero. Unfortunately for Weiner, and fortunately for audiences, this film tells a darker tale that goes well beyond election results. No doubt Weiner was envisioning a contemporary political hierography such as of Leacock’s “Primary” or Penneback and Hegedus’ “The War Room”. Instead “Weiner” is akin Andrew Jarekci’s “Capturing the Friedmans”, a searing portrait of a family gripped by psychological dysfunction. It is doubtful the filmmakers’ themselves could have conceived how much this film would drift away from a Phoenix-like narrative. This is the story of hubris, writ large. The genius of the movie is that it goes beyond being a portrait of a horrible man. Anthony, and his perverted behavior, fade into the background. It is the supporting cast, his wife, his aides, that come into focus. This film raises uncomfortable questions about loyalty and ambition.

The Weiner saga revolves around specific knowledge of NY politics and the East Coast media, yet this film is directed at a general audience. The challenge of weaving an enormous, intricate backstory into a lively narrative is daunting. Sternberg and Kriegman, with the formidable editing talent of Eli B. Despres, present an approachable, riveting story with concise uses of news footage, staged interviews and free-flowing tracking the people during the events. Often multi-screen excerpts are presented simultaneously. It is a testament to the skill of the filmmakers that juxtaposing the material, which shifts in both sources and duration, pushes the narrative forward without being overwhelming or boring. There are quiet, intimate ‘one on one’ moments which appropriately blend with fast moving deluges of information. Everything is in the service of telling Anthony’s story. This film should be studied by aspiring documentarians simply for the tour de force management of sources to render a taught narrative. Even if one loathes the subject matter, the crafting of the story is first rate.

In the beginning we are presented the firebrand liberal Congressman on the House floor histrionically screaming against the hypocrisy of his Republican opponents. He claims they are hiding behind a technicality in procedure. Desperate aid to 9/11 first responders is being denied.  He takes no prisoners and the expression on the presiding speaker shows anguish. Anthony is a fearsome adversary or advocate, depending on your politics. But he seems genuine in his fervor for justice for the underdog. Constituents, many elderly, minority, LGBT, working poor… shower him with genuine affection in many small moments at public events. His staff is equally zealous and this leads to a genuine feeling that victory in the Mayoral Democratic Primary is within reach. This redemptive introduction hints at what might have been. He is unexpectedly ahead in the polls against a well established group of adversaries. Then came…. Sydney Leathers. If this were fiction you would criticize the writer for overdrawing someone with a name that matches her temperament.  This woman exposes photographs of Weiner’s weiner. They were sent to her by text, AFTER HE RESIGNED FROM CONGRESS FOR SEXTING. She then agrees to film a porno movie based on his online fantasies. For those who disbelieve life is stranger than fiction you should view the NY Daily News “Weinergate Gallery” - the opening image in the photo-spread is entitled “Sydney Leathers films porn: The woman behind the Anthony Weiner Scandals”  Did I mention that Anthony’s wife, Huma Abedin, is about to give birth to their first child?

At this point the film morphs from the political to the personal. There will be no comeback. The shift is staggering. It is as if Robert Redford from the feature film “The Candidate” and Alan Alda “From the Seduction of Joe Tynan” turned to their trusted staff and loyal family and said, “So the press knows about the OTHER time I took pictures of my junk for some online hookers… we need to join together so you can defend me and we can win this election”. Audiences would DEMAND everyone reject him. Furthermore the politician would need to spend the rest of his life  begging forgiveness from everyone involved. The idea that people would close ranks and his wife would remain by his side would be laughably implausible. This is exactly what happened in the non-fiction world. There is no harm in disclosing the plot point as the experience of watching his wife and communications director defend him must be seen to be believed. This is the crux of the drama. What was everyone thinking? 

The righteous bravado of the defender of the dis-enfranchised takes on a sinister air during a sequence in which Anthony decides be interviewed by TV political analyst Lawrence O’Donnell. The host, despite being politically sympathetic to the candidate, decides to speak plainly. He labels Weiner’s decision to stay in the race as a sign of severe mental illness. Weiner responds with a brutal riposte castigating O’Donnell and saying, amongst other things, he’d be happy to return to the show when he is mayor. Adding to the absurdity of the scene is the fact that the host is in a Washington DC  while Weiner is alone in the NY Studio. The filmmakers cleverly intercut the segment so it appears Weiner is speaking into thin air. The effect is the disquieting feeling of witnessing someone walking down the street mumbling and trying to ascertain whether they are on a cell phone, or bat-shit crazy. The later is confirmed when Weiner returns home to his partner. Huma, who is somehow still ensconced chez Weiner with their lovely son, comes to comfort her beleaguered spouse. She is appropriately solemn and sullen. He is triumphant and obsessively re-watches the O’Donnell encounter online. He turns to her for validation. Huma quietly tells him it does not put him in a good light. He ignores her and continues to watch and cackle while cheering on his perceived victory. She exits. There is a hope that she will pack her bags and leave the apartment. Unfortunately she returns as the dutiful, albeit chastened, wife. Things get…. worse.

The film’s chef d’oeuvre is the day of the election. Huma turns out to have a human limit to utter humiliation. She cannot face the ignominy of the walk to the polling station with her husband and young son in front of a crowd of reporters. This is understandable as any normal person would feel akin to taking part in a “perp walk”. Anthony, lacking any sense of propriety, is undeterred. He creates a fictitious story WHILE IN FRONT OF STEINBERG AND KRIEGMAN’S ROLLING CAMERAS. HE THEN REPEATS THE LIE TO THE PRESS WHILE SHOWCASING HIS INFANT AT THE POLLING STATION. The inner workings of politics has always shared the unseemly ambiance of a sausage factory. The film is an endless barrage of disingenuousness. It might have been palatable in the context of a realistic, redemptive narrative. Unfortunately, given our anti-heroes antics, one feels the desire to phone child protective services. But once again things get… worse. 

Sydney Leathers is in town for the election. Shock-Jock Howard Stern asks her to track down her old friend Anthony. The candidate is given the news of her proposed visit during a photo op with his young son at the playground. The heretofore loyal communications chief has been replaced by an earnest, callow newbie with lots of strategies and no common sense. The staffers have secretly nicknamed Leathers “Pineapple”. The aide explains, ON CAMERA, the reason the campaign created a moniker is to hide the fact that they are acknowledging her at all. This confession is followed by him turning to the camera and saying “I shouldn’t have told you that”. Anthony can be thankful he didn’t divulge the origins of the name "Pineapple" - although one senses that information would be forthcoming if the filmmakers had asked. “Pineapple” is planted in front of the venue where they’re having the post election gathering. The aide reassures the candidate that he shouldn’t worry. He has the demeanor of a second string high school quarterback who has been called up to save the game in the 4th quarter. The plan is to enter the campaign party via the adjacent building, which happens to be a McDonalds restaurant. On the way to the event Weiner makes a rare mammalian gesture to Huma as paparazzi swarm the limo in front of the Mickey D’s. He tells her she can remain in the safety of the car. The disturbing implication is that she might have followed him. Note: she said, ON CAMERA, she did not wish to be publicly humiliated by “Pineapple”.  Was this the origin of the noble gesture? Anthony bounds forth into the crowd as “Pineapple” tries to corner him. Our anti-hero escapes. “Pineapple” is left in the McDonald’s muttering to the press, “Why is he scared of a 23 year old girl?”. Did I mention the party is marking his finishing dead last in the crowded field? After all this, he garnered less than 5% of the vote. 

In the end we are left with the disquieting notion that Weiner was always Weiner. There is a, pardon the term, impenetrability to his persona. He was ALWAYS immutable. The things that drove him to the spotlight as a force of legitimate power were identical to the boss/father/spouse who threw everyone under the bus to gratify an urge to masturbate. Huma is the sphinx. She must have known his nature. It is always dangerous to speculate on the private parts of public lives but this movie begs the question. Who is Huma?  Claire Underwood in “House of Cards”?  Tina Turner in “What’s Love Got to Do With It”? Elizabeth Taylor in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe”? A post-modern Lady Macbeth?  There are tantalizing clues. Small moments when she gestures to the camera with a facial expression representing, “can you BELIEVE this guy?”…. No we can’t - so why are you still standing next to him? There is also the odd moment when she bestows some advice to Weiner’s communications chief. This woman is, literally, in tears after fending off countless press calls after Anthony’s second exposure revelation. In the emergency meeting at Weiner’s apartment she has mentioned that the fourth estate is clamoring for news. They are threatening to spread rumors that she is involved with the candidate if she doesn’t respond. Huma warns her not to leave the building without having pulled herself together. She then adds, “I’m telling you this for YOUR sake”. She isn’t.  Considering what she has endured who could blame her for wanting to guard her remaining dignity. Her decision to stay in the marriage and let Anthony use the prop/child are curious. Her ambitious nature is subtlety on display. She is still, despite everything, Hillary Clinton’s most important staff member. The film reveals Bill Clinton thought of her as a second daughter and presided over her marriage. No indication about his feelings now. This is one obvious topic this tell-all doesn’t tell. The other untouched area is the staffers’ feelings. Certainly there are tense moments when they are clearly pushed to limits by Anthony’s boundless narcissism. Given all the titillation about everyone coming to the same conclusion, it is surprising no one went on the record. Especially given the power couples’ willingness include everyone in the reality/horror show. The most the audience is given is tortured grimaces and curt expressions of disappointment.   

The very last scene in the movie is a wonderful metaphor for the entire story. Despite everything, Weiner has a fabulists’ charisma that is seductive. There is a quiet photo shoot in a nice neighborhood (upper west side?). A goofy grade school kid happens on the scene. Despite his nerdy private school demeanor, he is hip to the adult happenings around him. He immediately sizes up the situation and whips out his cell phone to tell his mother he is with ANTHONY WEINER!!!! There is no judgement - just pure, squealing (literally), joy about being a part of the scene. He poses with the politician, who makes a sardonic comment about how his mother might not want him to look up the details of his life. There is a crazed, bonhomie to the tableaux of the young boy taking a selfie with the disgraced pol…. despite the moral failings, the broken lives, betrayals, painful truths… this is SHOW BIZ!!! Who doesn’t like being in front of the camera. “Weiner” asks questions about the price of celebrity when there is no distinction made between fame and infamy. Even if you love someone… should you stick around? The movie seems to be a reenforcement of that old saw that parents give their children regarding the perils of joining the circus. 

Huma Abedin, despite her husband’s best efforts, has remained an important player in national politics.  Thankfully for her, the critically acclaimed “Weiner” hasn’t been a blockbuster. The storm has passed…. or has it? I read the news today… oh boy. Anthony is at it again. Soliciting a college girl (and Republican staffers) with boasts of his sexual prowess while at his post-film job as a PR consultant. He claims to have the sexual stamina of a mongoose and makes word play with the word “staff”. The college girl turned out to be a male troll.  He claims Weiner gave him his number and wanted to meet. Here is his reaction from the article in the NY Post:

Confronted Saturday morning outside his Union Square home, Weiner grew irate and offered up a bizarre conspiracy theory — that he had been framed by Rupert Murdoch, CEO of The Post’s parent company, News Corp.

“It was set up by you guys, obviously,” he told The Post as he clutched a Louis Vuitton bag in one hand and his son in the other. “It was totally busted, as well.”

“Another Murdoch setup!” he railed, as his wife walked stone-faced in sunglasses toward a parked Ford Escape SUV.

Asked why he gave his phone number over Twitter, Weiner said, “That was a way to bust you people,” before he got in the SUV and sped off.

-NY Post, Aug. 16th 2016, “Anthony Weiner saw no party lines when sexting

After seeing “Weiner” one imagines the former Congressman getting in the car and turning to Huma and his infant son for reassurance. One can hear him barking, “I showed THEM… didn’t I!”. That is the part of this entire story that is most disturbing. Reality television has real victims.

Coda: On Aug. 29, 2016 (a few days after I wrote this review) the press reported that Huma Abedin had decided to formally separate from Anthony Weiner. Once again… he was back to his old tricks. It gets worse. Anthony had joked with his sexting partner that someone was crawling into bed with him… he then sent a photo to his paramour of his infant son next to his bulging crotch. The NY Post ran the pictures and the text. One can only imagine Huma’s phone call informing her boss of the latest developments, not to mention the lifetime of torment her husband has wrought on her family and friends. The foibles of the rich and powerful usually generate a degree of schadenfreude… but in this case, even the most callous newswatcher must feel some degree of empathy, especially towards the child. This slow motion car wreck was utterly avoidable, utterly predictable and completely devastating. 

Coda: On Sept. 1, 2016  The New York Times reports Anthony Weiner confirming Child Welfare Services is investigation him. My quip at the end of paragraph 6 turned into reality. 

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