Anthony Weiner was a young congressman with one of the most promising careers in Washington when a sexting scandal forced a humiliating resignation. Several years later, Weiner gave filmmakers Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg unprecedented access as he embarked on a remarkable political resurrection and ran for mayor of New York City. Against all odds, Weiner resonates strongly with New York votes until his unexpected comeback takes another sharp turn with allegations of a new sexting scandal. As the media descends and dissects his every move, Weiner desperately tries to forge ahead, but the increasing pressure and crippling 24-hour news coverage halt his political aspirations dead in their tracks. This fascinating documentary teeters between political farce and personal tragedy as Anthony Weiner and his wife, Huma Abedin, longtime aide to Hillary Clinton, face the growing onslaught. With the city of New York as a loud and bustling backdrop, Weiner charges through an increasingly baffling political campaign with unflinching clarity, humor, and pathos — and plenty of connections to today’s political world. I sat down with Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg in Los Angeles to discuss this unique film.
Danny Miller: The access you had to Anthony Weiner throughout this film seemed pretty extraordinary considering what he was going through. Obviously when you started out, you were aiming for a very different kind of film.
Josh Kriegman: I worked on Anthony’s staff when he was in Congress so I got to know him very well and see what an interesting and dynamic person he was. And then I left politics and started working in filmmaking with Elyse. After he resigned, we both felt that his story would be a very interesting one to tell so I pitched him on the idea of presenting him as a full person. We batted that idea around for a couple of years and finally, on the day that he announced he was going to run for mayor, Anthony texted me and said “Okay, if you want to come here with a camera and start filming, you can.” Of course we jumped at the chance!
When the new scandal broke, did you say, “Okay, that’s it, we’re done — he’ll never want to continue with the film now?”
I mean, he certainly could have said that at any point — and you can see a few times in the film when they do tell me to stop filming. But I think both Anthony and Huma really wanted the possibility of a different version of their story being told.
Elyse Steinberg: Right. You can see him address that in the film as well. He wanted to be viewed as the person he really was and not just as a punchline. He had been reduced to this caricature and he was very interested in having a more nuanced portrait of him out there in the world.
Even though the story didn’t turn out the way he had hoped, I think the film still accomplishes that.
I think so, too. I’ve always thought that the most exposed tend to be the least revealed and that was certainly the case with Anthony going in. And then when the scandal broke in the middle of the campaign, our intention to present a more complex portrait only intensified because what you saw playing out in the tabloids was so different from what we were seeing privately. We wanted to go beyond the headlines and show what it’s like for someone to go through that kind of media firestorm.
Josh: Yeah, and when the scandal started to overshadow everything else, I think Anthony’s desire to have another version of the story documented intensified for him, too.
It’s pretty miraculous how far he got in the mayoral race before the second scandal broke, even after being forced to resign from Congress. And sad to see how effective he was as a politician.
Elyse: Being in the middle of that, I have to say it was astonishing how he was defying expectations and the pundits who all said he was finished. He was rising to the top of the polls and there was definitely that sense, of “Wow, he might really pull this off!” He was really connecting with New York voters in a big way. I think it was quite possible he could have been mayor if this hadn’t happened.
In a way, I’m sure the new sexting allegations “helped” your film even though it obviously changed the course of it.
As documentarians you’re always looking for that “story in motion.” In this case we had a compelling main character, we had an election which had a natural arc to it — a beginning, middle, and end — but yes, this changed everything. We just wanted to keep documenting, it was all happening so fast.
Josh: There’s this funny moment that didn’t make it into the film. On the day that the scandal broke, everything was in total chaos as you can imagine. We were in the car with Anthony as it pulled up to an event that he’d been scheduled to speak at, and outside his window we could see dozens of news cameras waiting to pounce on him the second he stepped out of the car. As he was about to open the door, he looked over to us and said, “So, this is working out pretty well for you, isn’t it?” And then he jumped out of the car and faced the reporters. Of course, as filmmakers, we understood we were in a pretty special place to tell this story, but as someone who knew Anthony and Huma, it was hard not to feel for them.
Huma Abedin is such a fascinating character in this film. I so admire her and it’s painful to see her have to go through all of that again, especially since she was so harshly judged for staying with him after the first scandal.
Elyse: Huma is obviously much more quiet and reserved than Anthony but she shared his desire of wanting a more complete story told. But it’s true — she was ridiculed and judged as much as he was.
In some ways more so, which is so completely unfair.
Yeah, there were so many people analyzing her decisions. “What are you doing? Why are you still with him?” There’s a big tendency in our culture to judge women for the mistakes made by their flawed husbands — look at what Hillary Clinton still has to deal with. One of our hopes with this film is to also start having a conversation about that. Shouldn’t every woman be allowed to make her own decisions about her marriage and her family?
Absolutely. But while I agree with you about that, I have to admit that the film made me confront my own judgments — especially because Weiner made those decisions to send those women pictures after his previous scandal. It’s so hard to watch that and not think, “Why the hell are you doing these stupid things?” I’m fascinated by the story as well as its larger implications in our culture.
One of the things that’s been really exciting for us is that, on the whole, people really seem to be getting that this is more than just Anthony’s story. It provides a look into how politics today are driven by entertainment and spectacle. You certainly don’t have to look very far to see that being played out in Donald Trump’s campaign.
Yeah, except I think if Trump had made some of those same decisions, many of his followers probably would have lauded him for it.
Obviously Anthony Weiner and Donald Trump are very different people, personally and politically, they’re on the opposite sides of the aisle, but I think both understood that in order to get attention in today’s 24-hour news cycle, you have to put on a show, that’s the way you get attention even though it can sometimes turn around on you.
Josh: Anthony has a kind of speak-your-mind honesty that people respond to, but he’s very different from Trump in that he had ideas that he really cared about and things he was fighting for to help his constituents. But I like that the film brings about such a diverse range of reactions from people. One person will watch it and say, “Anthony is amazing, I hope he runs for office again,” while another will say, “Are you kidding? That’s ridiculous!” I think one of the interesting insights that is revealed in the film is the idea that some of the same qualities of Anthony’s personality that served him well as a politician were the same qualities that ultimately contributed to his problems in this other part of his life.
What’s he up to these days?
For the most part, since Huma has such an active role in Hillary Clinton’s campaign and is traveling all over the country, Anthony is home taking care of their young son.
Any chance he’ll ever return to politics?
Who can say? I think Anthony recognizes that he had his second chance and it didn’t go well, to say the least. But these days, with all the surprises in politics — who knows?