Weiner ****|****

Anthony Weiner and Huma Abedin in Weiner
Anthony Weiner and Huma Abedin in Weiner

By now, the outrageous sexting scandal that turned former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner from promising mayoral contender to political pariah has been covered so ad nauseam from the mainstream media, it’s hard to believe that there’s much more left to discover. His name has served as a punching bag for comedians and pundits everywhere but it seemed only inevitable that the details of the story would get buried under torrents of pun-laden headlines. The fascinating fly-on-the-wall documentary Weiner by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg provides unprecedented access into just how tumultuous the ordeal was not only for Weiner’s personal and political life but for those closest to him as well.

After a lascivious Twitter photo forced Weiner to resign from Congress in 2011, his camp’s reaction was to lay low with the hopes of making a strong showing in the upcoming 2013 election for New York Mayor. The film charts his improbable rise to the top of the polls, bolstered by New York citizens eager to give the disgraced statesman a second chance despite underlying issues of trust and credibility. Just when it seems that a true comeback story is underway, the second wave of unsavory personal texts and photos emerge and send his campaign into a death spiral from which it would never recover.

Much like the coverage of the scandal that came to define its subject, this film has the sort of compulsively watchable, train-wreck quality to it that will no doubt have audiences wincing, gawking and nervously chuckling all at once. But because the scope is so focused on Weiner and his hopelessly outmatched campaign staff, it rarely comes across as sensationalized as the media scrutiny that is itself reflected in the story as well. All of the small moments of triumph and tragedy still feel personalized enough to retain the human scale of this unmitigated political disaster.

Much of this is encapsulated by the tense and often terse interactions between Weiner and his wife Huma Abedin, herself a longtime aide to Hillary Clinton with plenty at stake in her political career. The layers of pain and humiliation that she attempts to conceal not only from the news cameras but also from those filming her for the documentary is nothing short of heartbreaking. It’s fair to speculate why Abedin, having been put through such public indignation, would not only stay with Weiner but also take such an active role in trying to get him elected.

Late in the film, one of the documentarians literally asks its subject “why are you letting me film this?” It’s clear that Weiner doesn’t have a compelling answer. Is it because he’s a rampant narcissist, desperate for any means of attention, no matter how humiliating? Is it yet another political play, with the hopes that a “warts and all” approach will persuade future voters? Weiner doesn’t have overt answers to any of those questions, which may frustrate viewers who expect a condemnation or exoneration of its subject but should delight anyone seeking a compelling character study of a potentially unknowable public figure.