WATCH: Media takes match to combustible politician in Weiner

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Former Rep. Anthony Weiner, for those who don’t remember or have a talent for tuning out such scandals, represented Brooklyn and Queens for seven terms in Congress before resigning in 2011 following revelations of sexting.

Two years later, the liberal Democrat announced he was running for mayor for New York. From that moment though the election four months later, former political consultant Josh Kriegman and producer Elyse Steinberg filmed Weiner and his campaign.

The painfully candid feature-length documentary, “Weiner,” exists thanks to the extraordinary access that Weiner and his wife, Huma Abedin, granted the filmmakers. What sets the film apart is the number of cringe-inducing moments deriving from Weiner’s bluntly candid and unfiltered behavior.

Anthony Weiner confronts the media during his 2013 mayoral campaign in New York City. photo/jta-courtesy sundance selects

“We see many celebrity meltdowns,” Kriegman said. “In our film, you get to actually be in the room while it’s happening. What is that experience really like, beyond the puns about his name or the TV narrative?”

“Weiner,” which won the Grand Jury Prize in the documentary competition at Sundance, opens May 27 in San Francisco and Berkeley. In addition to its obvious relevance in an election year, there’s another factor: Abedin is a longtime aide and adviser to Hillary Clinton.

The trip-wire in the campaign, and the film, is the “news” that Weiner’s sexting didn’t end in 2011 as he claimed at the time, but continued until just before his ultimately unsuccessful mayoral campaign. Although no actual sex ever took place, the media — from TV to the tabloids to talk radio — embarked on a feeding frenzy that focused entirely on the candidate’s credibility and morality while ignoring substantive issues.

“As he says in the film, ‘Maybe politicians are wired to need attention,’ ” Kriegman said in an interview. “But a lot of what he was working on and fighting for was sincere and authentic, and he really did care about policy and problems that he was trying to solve as a politician. It’s too simplistic to throw one label on him either way, which is the point of the film.”

“A significant point of the film is to show [the fallacy of] these simple questions — ‘Is it good for Hillary or bad for Hillary?’ ‘Is Anthony a good guy or a bad guy,’ ” Steinberg added. “We’re trying to go beyond those binary questions and have a look about our politics and where we are right now.”

While Weiner is poorly served by his media interactions, he is both at his best and his worst when interacting with voters one on one. Quoted early in the documentary as saying he despises bullies, Weiner shows he’s capable of being one himself in a contentious confrontation with an observant Jewish man in a bakery who curses at Weiner and calls him a “deviant.”

But even this scene is open to interpretation, for we later learn that Weiner might have been provoked by a slur about his wife. The heckler says Weiner is “married to an Arab” — though, in fact, Abedin is the daughter of Indian and Pakistani parents.

“Anthony has a brash, at times aggressive, in-your-face personality, and it certainly was a big part of his appeal as a successful politician in New York City,” Kriegman said. “I don’t know if that’s exactly Jewish or not, but there’s certainly an element of his character that resonated with New Yorkers in the sense that he was unafraid to mix it up on a street corner. At one point he said that’s nirvana for him, standing on a corner with a crowd of people and everyone yelling at each other about issues. Knowing him personally, I know that really was a viscerally enjoyable experience for him to engage in that way.”

Steinberg is a native New Yorker while Kriegman grew up outside of Boston and moved to the Big Apple around 10 years ago. Their stated goal is to foment a debate about the trivial, sensationalistic way the media covers civics, but they seem to be unaware this is not a recent development.

“We see this film as being about more than one person or one campaign,” Steinberg said. “It provides a look at how our politics has become about spectacle.”

That won’t come as a shock to most veiwers. Kriegman offers a fresh take, however, on the public perception of the issue that ultimately defined and doomed Weiner’s campaign.

“Anthony’s sexting scandal was different than others,” he suggested, “in the sense that he was doing something that I think for a lot of people, especially older voters, was not just wrong — in the way that prostitution is obviously wrong — but actually fell into a category of deviant. It was a kind of sexual behavior that people were not familiar with.”

opens May 27 at the Embarcadero Cinema in San Francisco and the Shattuck in Berkeley (96 minutes, rated R for language and some sexual material).

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.