It seemed like a good idea at the time: Following his resignation from Congress in the wake of a sexting scandal in 2011, Anthony Weiner agreed to be the subject of a documentary that he hoped would chart his comeback from the ashes of a once-promising congressional career. With his wife Huma Abedin on board and eager to “get her life back that I had taken from her,” as he confesses in the new documentary Weiner, co-directed by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, Weiner invites the cameras along on his run for Mayor of New York City in 2013. At first things go remarkably well, with Weiner taking an early lead in the polls midway through the campaign. We see him and Abedin, one of Hillary Clinton’s most trusted advisors, at home with their young son, charming would-be donors over the phone, and appraising each other’s choices. “I’m not crazy about those pants,” Abedin says, giving her husband the once-over as they ride in an elevator. It's an intimate view of a contemporary working couple going about their lives. But when a second round of sexts are leaked, catching Weiner off-guard, he swiftly loses the support of the millions who were willing to overlook his past to support him.
The filmmakers stay the course as their subject attempts damage control to his image, his campaign, and his marriage. They are there with him in the car, in his son’s nursery, in crisis mode with his wife. The most painful scenes in Weiner, which opens in New York and L.A. today and nationwide on May 27, naturally involve Abedin as she visibly bristles with a rage she’s working hard to contain. “It’s like living a nightmare,” she tells Kriegman and Steinberg one morning in her kitchen. And although she never addresses her personal feelings onscreen, her eye rolls tell us everything we need to know. Wince-worthy, too, are Weiner’s repeated attempts to regain momentum via talk show appearances and campaign stops that seem to end only in further humiliation. What the filmmakers capture so well is not only Weiner’s brash wit and astonishing shortsightedness, but the frenzy of modern-day politics and its impact on a high-profile American family.
One of the things that struck me was how reluctant a participant Huma was. What was her initial reaction when you guys proposed the documentary?
Kriegman: I had known Anthony Weiner for many years. I actually met him while working for him in Congress; I was his chief of staff for a couple of years. After I left politics and moved into filmmaking, that’s when he resigned from Congress after his first scandal. And then he and I started a conversation about the possibility of making a documentary, and this went on over the course of a couple of years of going back and forth about whether he and Huma would be willing to open up their lives to us. On the morning that he was officially announcing that he was running for mayor, he sent me a text inviting me to come with a camera to make this documentary.
Why do you think they were willing to open up their lives to you? There was a lot at stake.
Steinberg: It was a question we wondered about ourselves. And it’s one that we posed to Anthony in the film. He says that he wanted to be viewed as the full person that he was instead of a punch line. And that was our intention with the film. And the same is true with Huma. There was a lot of judgment placed upon her. You see she was ridiculed and reduced just as much as he was. And while she is more quiet and reserved than Anthony, I do think she shares some of his desire of wanting a more fair and complete story told.
In what way do you think she was ridiculed and given short shrift initially?
Steinberg: Huma is one of many women whose husbands did something wrong or embarrassing ,and then are criticized for their decision to stay in the marriage. And one of the things that we wanted to do in this film is to go beyond those judgments and to question them. I mean, shouldn’t a woman be allowed to make her own decisions without judgment? And why should we judge women because of mistakes made by their flawed husbands?
I’m not sure I understand what keeps them together. It’s hard to see their connection in this film. Do you feel like there are scenes that show a sense of intimacy that goes beyond the headlines of the relationship?
Kriegman: Our intention is to show a more nuanced and complex and real relationship that goes beyond this kind of reductive flurry of sound bites and tweets and little bits of information. But we rarely get a chance to actually spend real time with them. In this case we have a documentary where we really get a chance to see beyond the headlines, and see that they’re a real couple. And that relationship comes with the kind of complexity and nuance that I think is present in all relationships.
During filming, when things started to go awry in Weiner’s campaign after the second round of sexting leaks, what was your sense of him then? What we see is somebody who is totally devastated and yet trying to convince himself that it’s not going to derail him completely.
Kriegman: Well, I think that he obviously got into the race hoping to get past this conversation about his scandal and get to what he was trying to very authentically present, which was an interest in the issues and in some of the policy challenges that he was hoping to tackle as mayor of New York. In the beginning, things were going amazingly well. A lot of people were looking at it and saying "Wow, he really could be mayor." And then of course when these second revelations about his sexting emerged, that derailed his efforts. But he was very much still striving to stay the course. He just wasn’t able to get past this other conversation.
Was there any pushback in terms of you being in the room when things began to go badly? There’s one scene when his campaign staffers meet in the couple’s Park Avenue apartment to talk about their own disillusionment with him.
Kriegman: One of the ground rules going into filming was that if ever they wanted me to turn off the camera or to leave the room, they of course could tell me that. I respected those boundaries throughout. So it was four months of nonstop shooting and there were definitely moments like that. And you actually see a couple of them in the film.
After he lost the campaign and you guys were done, did he or Huma ask you guys to just dispense with the project? Was there interference?
Kriegman: No, no, none at all. He sat down with us three or four months after the end of the campaign. As you see in the film, there’s that one sit-down interview. He talked to us about the campaign for a number of hours in that interview. He was reflective and cooperative.
After the second series of sexts emerged, do you think that Huma was judged even more harshly?
Steinberg: Yeah, absolutely I think. You really see the judgment that was placed upon her. And I think Huma, as with many other women, have been judged by their husbands’ indiscretions, whether they stay at the press conference or whether they stay in the marriage. And we wanted to show the private story of her going about her life and what it meant to have that judgment.
What kind of impact do you think the film might have on the current Presidential race?
Steinberg: We have no control over how it’s used in terms of the campaign. But where we think our film is really relevant is providing a look at how our politics today is driven by an insatiable appetite for entertainment and spectacle. And we don’t have to look very far to see that being played out with Donald Trump. And while I think Trump and Anthony are very different, personally and politically, I do think that they both understood that in order to have a voice in today’s 24-hour news cycle, you need to put on a show. And by being brash and having an air of authenticity, you can get votes and get attention. And we think it’s very relevant to our current presidential race.
Were the two of you personally disappointed in Weiner? I mean obviously the turn of events made for a good film, so I can see why you wouldn’t be disappointed for the sake of the film. But were you surprised at the revelations, the second time around?
Kriegman: I think some of the details of the revelations and some of what came out, some of that was surprising. I wouldn’t say that I’m not disappointed. My intention going into this film was very much to capture and portray who I see as a really multifaceted and complicated, complex person.
But doesn’t the second scandal just return us to the punch line? I think what’s interesting was that was everyone’s intention—to get past the punch line to make a complex portrait. And Weiner himself undermined his own fantasy of getting past it.
Steinberg: Well, no, I think as filmmakers, this intention that we had to go in and take somebody who had been reduced to a punch line and a caricature and show a more nuanced portrait. After the sexting scandal broke during the campaign, that intention only intensified. Because what we saw being played out publicly was a very different story than we saw personally. You saw the jokes and the judgment against Anthony, and then in our film you get to see him putting his kid to sleep. You get a picture of what it means to be at the center of a media firestorm. The humanity behind the headlines. So the story changed, but our intentions stayed the same throughout.
Some of those scenes are brutal to watch. I mean you feel for him, definitely. Your sympathy is for both of them.
I think when you look at what he actually did, I mean it pales in comparison to what many others in political life did or have done and still managed to stay in office. Weiner didn’t commit a crime, cover up an investigation, hurt anyone other than himself and his wife. He behaved stupidly.
Kriegman: Yeah, it’s an interesting point you bring up. I mean, people have such a range of reactions and judgments to what he did. Whatever feelings might emerge through watching the film, our hope is that at the very least people recognize that Anthony’s human. And he’s more complex and nuanced than you might think from what you read about him.
Have Weiner or Abedin seen the film?
Kriegman: No, we offered to show it to them many months ago before the film was even completely finished. They didn’t want to see it, and they haven’t wanted to see it since. So despite quite a number of offers, they haven’t wanted to see it. We assume that they will at some point, and we’ll see what they think.
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