The Human Version of Weiner

Paste wonders about Weiner with co-director Josh Kriegman.

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The Human Version of <i>Weiner</i>

Weiner. Directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg are smart filmmakers, and so they commence their movie with that title and with wisdom from Marshall McLuhan: “The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers.”

But Weiner isn’t about a man’s name. It’s about a man’s deeds. It fixates on the years 2011 to 2013, during which the erstwhile U.S. representative Anthony Weiner resigned from his post following a now-infamous sexting scandal, then entered New York City’s mayoral race and then once more fell under siege courtesy of his electronic indiscretions. If you presume that the film is a picture show of awkward discomfort, though, you presume wrong: Weiner is surprisingly delightful, and in no small part due to its subject, seen at the full height of his energetic charisma in footage shot on the stump. There is little denying that Anthony Weiner is a politician of the people, possessed of an energy rarely seen in public servants on any stage.

There is also little denying that he is guilty of shameful behavior, which poses, for most moviegoers, a fundamental question: If it isn’t about decrying Weiner himself, then what could Weiner possibly be about? The answer is simple in its breadth. Kriegman and Steinberg made a movie not to excoriate Weiner, or to exonerate him, but to peel back the layers of what happened between the onset of his Internet follies and his bid for mayor—what went on behind the scenes, away from the narrow scope of media camera lenses and social media outlets. Weiner is not just an examination of a disgraced political idol, it’s an indictment of our media culture, of sensationalist politicking and of judgments made in the span of the time it takes to write out 140 characters.

At this year’s Independent Film Festival Boston, Paste sat down with one of the film’s directors, Josh Kriegman, to chat about the festival experience and pick over Weiner’s many themes of media—and personal—responsibility.

Paste Magazine: The energy in [the Somerville Theatre] was pretty high, which I find rare for documentaries. People really seemed to be into it. I noticed that there was a lot of laughter, but I couldn’t get over this undercurrent of melancholy running through it. When you set out to make this, did you want to try to get people to laugh or was there a more complex goal there?
Josh Kriegman: I think that the basic goal was to take this guy, who had been very much reduced to a caricature, and to tell the human version of his story, right? To round him out as a full person. The question of humor is an interesting one. Part of what we wanted to capture in the film is that Anthony is a really funny guy. He has an incredible sense of humor. He’s very smart, very quick-witted, and he’s just funny, and fun to be around. He has a certain kind of energy that we wanted to capture in the film as well.

So it was important to us that the film captured some of that fun and funny energy that reflected some of Anthony’s character—but also, we didn’t want to make a comedic film. We certainly didn’t want to tell the easy jokes that I think a lot of the media and late-night comedians enjoyed telling. We wanted to acknowledge the humor, but not pile on, and to get to a deeper story.

Paste: I think it’s important for the film to say that he’s layered, and that maybe we shouldn’t just see people by one component of who they are. Do you think it’s unjust that he wound up being just the sexting guy?
Kriegman: I don’t know about unjust. I think it was untrue. I think, especially in today’s media culture, there is this impulse to reduce everything, to get everything to fit into 140 characters. So much of what we consume about the news, current events, and public figures, is through these kind of reductive flurries of soundbites, and headlines, and news clips. This is why documentaries are exciting to me. I think there’s something tremendously valuable in getting a chance to take a closer look and to spend 90 minutes really getting to know somebody, rather than 20 seconds from a newsbite. So I think I was motivated by this idea that he, and everything and everybody, is more complex and nuanced than we might think from what we can see in the way that they play out in the news.

Paste: Why do you think it is that modern media compresses everything down, and why do you think the eye of the media is so myopic in its judgment?
Kriegman: I don’t know the answer to that, exactly! I mean, I think that there’s something going on, especially in relation to politics, where the conversation is increasingly driven by spectacle and by entertainment. A lot of these easy narratives and these harsh judgments, positive or negative, they’re more entertaining. They’re more exciting. You get two pundits on screen from opposite sides yelling at each other for 20 seconds, and that’s great entertainment. I don’t want to claim to be some kind of media expert or anything like that, but I think that there is clearly this way that our media has developed where it’s driven so much now by spectacle at the cost of substance.

Paste: I keyed into how much your camera shows of the suffering that Huma felt, that Anthony felt. We see the humiliation and the pain that they endured that the media didn’t show. Why do we like to see suffering as entertainment, though? Maybe that’s another question you can’t answer, but that was rolling around my head when I got out of the screening.
Kriegman: Yeah, it’s a good question. I think what people find, and I hope what people find interesting about our film, is getting to see a side of Anthony and Huma—and in some ways their relationship, and even the scandal in general, and the campaign—getting to see a side of it all that’s surprising, right? It’s the behind the scenes version. It’s what’s really going on, and in this case, what was really going on was, at times, painful, and a bit of a struggle. But that, I think, is real, and I think that’s interesting to people.

Paste: I would say that’s valuable to people, as well, not just interesting. I think we’re sorely lacking that.
Kriegman: Oh absolutely. To my previous point, for sure. I think that, yeah, that getting an opportunity to really witness and experience and take a close look at the reality of what’s going on, in contrast to the headline version, is immensely valuable. It’s the reason why I do really feel like documentaries, as a genre, hold up a very special place in our media culture right now, and maybe are increasingly popular, also. I think people long for a more robust version of reality, as opposed to the soundbite version.

Paste: I really hope that you’re right. Like I said earlier, I believe that’s lacking in a lot of our conversations these days.
Kriegman: For sure.

Paste: Going back to the realness of what we’re seeing, was there ever a moment during a production where you thought to yourself, “Oh my God, I can’t keep doing this. It’s not just painful for them, it’s now becoming painful for me.” I know you worked for Anthony. I was wondering if there was ever that moment of personal discomfort.
Kriegman: There certainly were many moments of discomfort. I knew Anthony well, I’m human, and it was at times obviously a pretty painful experience, and I was of course there attempting to do my best to capture it. So yeah, there were definitely moments that were intense. I think that it’s a challenge for anyone making documentaries, or even journalists. You have to be in touch enough with the emotion of what’s happening. First of all, you just are, because you’re a human being, and also it’s part of recognizing how to capture it best. But also, you need to foster a sort of “remove” from what’s happening, so you can do your job, and you can keep the camera in focus, and do the work of documenting it. So I think it’s a balance that has to be struck, and it certainly was something that I experienced throughout the course of filming.

Paste: I’m curious about something Anthony talked about in your candid one-on-one interviews. He was talking about the superficiality of the Internet. We’re talking about the media cycle, the entertainment cycle, but I think on a personal level for all of us, we trick ourselves into thinking that our actions have no consequences. Do you see the Internet as being something that invites us to engage in bad behaviors?
Josh Kriegman: [Weiner] says that some of the conversations he was having with these women, these relationships that he was having with them online, felt like playing a videogame. He was, in the course of describing it that way, recognizing that there was kind of an emotional distance he had from the reality of what he was engaging in, and certainly the consequences of what he was engaging in. Yeah, I think that there’s something about the virtual space that maybe feels removed, or safer, outside of normal life, but of course at the end of the day, especially with the way that technology works now, isn’t. I think that that can lead to some pitfalls.

Paste: I wanted to ask you a question I’ve asked a couple other documentary filmmakers that I’ve spoken to in the last year, and I think it applies here too: Do you think that we can have flawed heroes? Can we live our lives with our heroes being fallible?
Kriegman: That’s a great question. I like to think that we sort of have to, if we’re going to be honest about who our heroes are, right? Because they’re human. Therefore, they’re flawed. I think that there is something to be said for being honest about the humanity, even in the people that we look up to, and idolize, and believe are great people. Everybody’s flawed. I like to get beyond the idea of the infallible hero in general.

Paste: I don’t know if the point was meant to be made through the footage, but there’s one sequence where a woman says, “We’re from the Bronx, we don’t care.” I feel like there’s a small component of people who actually give a shit about Anthony’s personal life. Do you think that it’s only a problem because certain people say it is, and it winds up becoming something that everyone else doesn’t really care about? They want to hear about actual issues.
Kriegman: I don’t know exactly. At the end of the day, New York City voters rejected Anthony Weiner. So there certainly were people like that woman in the Bronx. Even at the end, getting only 5% of the vote, he had supporters, and I think those were the sorts of people who really felt like this stuff doesn’t matter, that it’s not relevant to the public service and the public work, and there should be that divide. But there’s a range of opinions on this, right? When it comes to Anthony Weiner’s story, the opinions and the judgments run the gamut in a really remarkable way. Obviously at the end of the day, the vast majority of New Yorkers decided, “No, this is relevant to our judgment of Anthony Weiner as a potential mayor and public servant, and it disqualifies him.”

Paste: How is it for you being in—not in Anthony’s position because you’re just being interviewed—but you’re in the spot where you’re the person who’s being interviewed about him? Now you’re caught in this cycle where you’ve talked to him, and now everyone wants to talk to you about talking to him. What’s it like being on the other side of the press now?
Kriegman: That’s a great question. I don’t know that I know the answer. I haven’t gotten that question before, and it’s an interesting one to think about. Yeah, I don’t know! I don’t know the answer to that.
Paste: I guess I ask because I see the press in the movie, and I think, “Man, what a bunch of jackasses.” And then I think to myself, “Well, you’re going to be talking to the press tomorrow.” So I guess I’m wondering: What are your personal impressions of, not necessarily me, or the person you talked to before, but of America’s press in general? You seem to have, if I was to guess, a distaste for them.
Kriegman: Yeah. Some people see this movie and they want to blame the media…
Paste: I certainly wanted to.
Kriegman: I think the media plays a role, for sure. But I think it’s way too simplistic to say that, “Oh, the way that this all transpired is the media’s fault,” you know? Anthony, of course, played a role, the media played a role, and I think we as consumers played a role, and it’s all part of this system that adds up to a fairly troubling trend, especially in our political conversation, as I was describing before in terms of the way that spectacle overtakes substance. Part of what you’re getting at, there’s a line that Anthony brings up at the end of the film about how the documentary is going to be sucked into the same vortex as everything else, the same entertainment vortex, right? Part of what he’s saying, or what he does say, is that it’s the same kind of sensational things that people were interested in when it came to the scandal are the same things that are going to make them interested in the documentary. And our hope is, of course, that it doesn’t do that.

As storytellers, as documentarians, we understand, and understood while we were filming, that this was a pretty dramatic story unfolding in front of us, and it was a very special place to be that we were getting to capture it, but the hope is that the conversation about the film, and the way that people understand and react to the film, goes beyond the more simplistic, sensational takeaways. I do think if people see the film as more fodder for judgments of Anthony, or Huma, or the scandal, or any of it, they’re kind of missing the point. For us, it’s really more about taking a step back, taking a closer look, and in some ways questioning a lot of the judgments that we tend to make.

Paste: If I may say, I don’t think that this film lends itself to adding to the sensationalism. It’s possible someone will look at it, and try to do that, try to restart the whole cycle again, but I don’t know. It’s a square peg, round hole situation. I don’t think that they could do that.
Kriegman: I hope not. It’ll be interesting to see, as more reactions to the film come out as it’s released in theaters and such. It’s been gratifying to see the range of reactions that there are to the film, that the audiences tend to walk away with a lot of different opinions, a lot of different judgments. That, to us, is an indication that the film is working in the way that we hoped it would, that there aren’t easy takeaways. It’s complicated stuff.

Paste: I hope it creates a more nuanced conversation. On a cultural level, I don’t know how we get away from sensationalism. I don’t know how we learn to value substance of over shock.
Kriegman: It’s hard. I agree with you. It’s a real challenge. I like the idea that our film fits into this conversation, because I think it is an important one.

Paste: Where do you personally see that conversation going? For you, what would be the best case scenario that this film achieves? What would you most want to see this film offer to the American public?
Kriegman: I guess there are two things. One is what we’ve been talking about: I hope that part of the takeaway is to recognize that, “Oh, Anthony Weiner, Huma, and this whole scandal is a much more complex thing than we might have thought.” I hope it causes people to question some of the easy narratives that have been laid out.

Then there’s also the second piece, which I’ve mentioned here, which is what the film has to tell us about our politics, how much it really is so much driven by spectacle and how much that relates to the current presidential cycle in terms of Trump, and in terms of the way that Anthony Weiner and Donald Trump are very different people, but they understand, I think, something fundamental now about the way our politics work, which is that to have a voice, you have to put on a show. I hope the film can be part of that conversation as well.

Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Movie Mezzanine and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.