Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, Durham
Thursday, April 7, 2016

Look, I’m sorry, but there’s no other way to say it: Everyone at Full Frame last night seemed very excited about Weiner, and all the delicious innuendo it unleashed.

For example, when I said I was looking for Weiner, one usher at the Carolina Theatre gave me a subtle smirk that seemed to say, “We don’t need to go there, but we know.” Another shot back a much franker double entendre. “I’ve been waiting all night to say that,” she added, laughing, “and you looked like the guy.”

I wasn’t sure exactly how to take that, but it’s always nice to be the guy, and I proceeded in good spirits to the balcony of a packed Fletcher Hall, as Full Frame director Deirdre Haj and programming director Sadie Tillery gave the festival’s opening remarks far below.

After premiering at Sundance in January, Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s deep-access documentary about a politician laid low by sexting is making the festival rounds before a theatrical release in May. I went in expecting a total clown show, and I saw one. The surprise was that Anthony Weiner isn’t really the clown. Instead, I felt renewed contempt for a grandstanding, hypocritical, salacious news media—and the parts of the electorate it keeps stoked into an unthinking moral fury.

Weiner begins two years after the New York congressman resigned because of his leaked sexts with various women who were not his wife, Huma Abedin. The film rollicks along with Weiner’s initially promising Democratic primary run for mayor and his arduously repaired marriage, each of which is derailed by a second round of leaks. The overlapping waves of the crisis give Weiner a volatile energy, as does the markedly unfiltered access to its subject’s campaign and life.

The film portrays a family besieged by tide after tide of sanctimonious interest in their private lives. Abedin, steadfast but wearying, balances standing by her husband’s side in press conferences with finessing the distance required of a Hillary Clinton aide. Weiner performs his public humiliation patiently and earnestly, over and over. He never tries to exonerate himself, but always tries to assuage and explain. He comes off as candid in a nothing-to-lose way, self-aware, passionate, and likable. He’s a good documentary subject because he’s bad at censoring his speech and his face gives things away.

We sense a pent-up torrent of energy waiting to be unleashed in governance, and it becomes increasingly maddening that Weiner’s mistakes so completely blot out the issues. Those transgressions affected his family, not his capacity to govern, and they’re really none of our business. He is also repeatedly excoriated for lying to the press, at first, about whether the sexts were his. But the film makes it easy to see why he did, given the endless, useless dial tone of public shaming that followed, with no forgiveness in sight.

The filmmakers are far from neutral presences, interjecting questions until Weiner jokes about never having heard of a fly on the wall that talks. When they ask, more or less, why him, he replies with a concise insight, like someone who has thought about it: “I lied to them. I have a funny name. And they don’t do nuance.” No matter how many times he publicly answers for his private faults, the questions come back with obtuse persistence. When the millionth reporter smugly asks Weiner, years after the scandal, “Why should we trust your judgment?” instead of asking about his platform, viewers might feel the urge to reverse the question.

And they might understand why Weiner’s penitent veneer eventually cracks, as he start to snap at a reporter here, flip one the bird there. At one point, he offers an interesting insight about the shallow relationships of political life and their connection to his penchant for virtual affairs. We can see that shallowness spreading all around him. Everyone seems blatantly motivated by the desire for a ratings boost or a moment to don a moral mantle, no matter how threadbare. The breathtaking cynicism is focused in the person of one of Weiner’s sext partners, who shows up to ambush him with Howard Stern, and who doesn’t even pretend to have any legitimate grievances or ideals.

It’s one of many embarrassments Weiner endures before earning less than 5 percent of the vote in the primary, a definitive-seeming defeat. He has since said he wishes he hadn’t let the filmmakers follow him, but in fact, he comes off well: hardworking, honest, even respectable, in his willingness to publicly grapple with something so personal. Before, thanks to a culture of newsploitation, all I really knew about him was “Carlos Danger” and dick pics. Now? Hell, I’d vote for him.

The 2016 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival continues through Sunday, April 10.