Returning to US politics, last night I watched the remarkably candid documentary, “Weiner“, the subject of which is the eponymous former congressman Anthony Weiner. The New York politician came to prominence in the United States as a firebrand Democrat, famed for his excoriating attacks on the Republican Party until a series of repetitive extramarital – if possibly unconsummated – affairs brought his career to a juddering halt in 2011. With his ambitions for higher office thwarted by hubris and licentiousness, Weiner licked his wounds for some time before making a stab at the mayoral office in the Big Apple. The film, in true fly-on-the-wall style, follows his resultant, and ultimately disastrous, campaign in the summer of 2013. From the get-go the Brooklyn-born careerist lives up to his reputation as a narcissistic self-promoter who has never met a camera he didn’t fall in love with. Throughout the ninety-six minutes of screen-time Weiner struts, preens, showboats and manipulates on and off the campaign trail in a boisterous election that is as much about validating him – and his ego – as it is about the mayorship of New York City. This is summed up in one brief scene where he obsesses over a confrontational television appearance on MSNBC, looking for reassurances that he got the upper-hand in a psychobabble argument with one of his press critics. In truth, neither individual emerged from the risible segment with their reputations intact.
At times the documentary is surprisingly intimate in terms of its subjects. Indeed, it is perhaps too intimate. The unease and distress of his wife, former Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin, is visible throughout, albeit often in the background or off to one side. Why on earth she agreed to have a documentary-crew camped out in her home for months on end during the most torturous moments of her married life is a question that remains unanswered. This is especially true as we gawp at the slow-motion car crash that makes up the scandal-ridden second half of the film. Is she an example of the dutiful long-suffering wife standing by her man, à la her former mentor? Or is she a committed politico placing the social and financial privileges that come with being a “power couple” above private and public betrayal? While I lean towards both positions (as with Hillary Clinton, before her) I understand those who can only see the latter.
All in all, “Weiner” is one of the most watchable political documentaries of recent years, albeit in a vaguely repulsive way, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. It provides an insider view on domestic US politics, particularly in the frenetic hothouse of New York, that is rarely seen. It also throws into sharp relief the exhibitionist nature of some metropolitan Americans, the almost theatrical behaviour they adopt when cameras and microphones are present. Perhaps it is a cultural thing, a population raised on a diet of twenty-four hour television and Hollywood, but at times you wonder if you are watching real people or actors engaged in a bit of bizarre performance art. For an Irish viewer, and perhaps Europeans in general, the hysterical, emotionally disproportionate reaction of a child meeting Anthony Weiner in the final few moments of the movie confirms a few of the prejudices we carry about the United States and its people. It certainly makes one think that perhaps the former congressman, with his burning hunger for public notoriety, is the quintessential 21st century American politician after all.
Certainly president-elect Donald Trump has a lot to thank him for…