HOW THE SAUSAGE IS UNMADE
Upton Sinclair said of industrial meat packers that “[t]hey use everything about the hog except the squeal.” When the press ties a politician to his penis it goes Farmer John one better: the louder the squeal, the higher the ratings.
The mechanics of governance gets scant coverage. What politicians do at work is a well-kept secret and widely considered dry stuff. Americans understand so little about how laws are made that we can still be shocked en masse by revelations that Democrats make deals with Republicans. It takes a talented political reporter to cut through the ignorant fat, one with the tenacity and guts to buck an omnipotent closed system. There are several, and they are heroes. Most gravitate toward easier meat.
When politicians drop their pants, they trigger a hormonal response in journalists. A sex scandal is among the most facile forms of reportage, and holds an essential grudging interest for even the coolest consumer. It is a safe, self-righteous pornography. What bleeds leads, and there’s nothing as bloody as a stuck pig.
Anthony Weiner presented an irresistible pig. Hunky and handsome by Beltway standards and endowed with a quip-ready name, he committed the sins of a high schooler: He sent photos of himself, undressed, to strangers on social media, and sometimes had phone sex with them. But he wasn’t an anonymous teenager, and the married elected officer seems to have thrown away a productive public service career.
Seven years on the New York City Council led to eleven years representing New York in Washington, pushing both a pro-Israeli and a progressive social agenda. Weiner’s quick-thinking eloquence, Jewish roots and Muslim bride brightened his rising star in the Democratic Party. He overwhelmingly won seven elections to the House, a popular legislator, confrontational, sarcastic, charismatic. He was a showman who used the media to illuminate his concerns and himself – he once told House Speaker John Boehner, in reference to Boehner’s revisionist pronunciation of his own name, to “own it, brother” – and often brought props to the House floor.
But in 2011, Weiner Tweeted a photo to 40,000 followers instead of to one lucky lady. Revelations about his sexting habits – and those of his online alter ego Carlos Danger (!) – turned every camera from a helpful friend into a predator. The portrait of his bulging underwear became the visual pun du jour. Encouraged by the New York Post‘s crimes against rhetorical style, late-night comics made a hash of Weiner’s meat. Even supporters like Jon Stewart were forced to address the embarrassment. And at his side during the collapse stood his beautiful, shy, pregnant wife Huma Abedin, looking as victimized as it is possible for a stand-by-your-man woman to look. No less a figure than President Obama, to whom the wiry, low-fat Weiner was often compared, recommended his resignation. Weiner stepped down after a brief, stubborn defiance.
The personality that fuels a Weiner doesn’t rest easily. The same drive that made him successful had led him to high-risk bad habits, and it’s hard to kennel such a dog. He soon wanted out of the “defensive crouch” his family had had to assume. And somehow Weiner talked his wife, a senior aide to Hillary Clinton, into letting him run for mayor of New York City in 2013.
In a campaign notable for bad choices, Weiner’s most inspired decision was to allow Josh Kriegman, his former chief of staff, to embed himself and co-director Elyse Steinberg as a filmmaking crew to document Weiner’s comeback. With intimate access to Weiner and Abedin’s homes, offices, cars, Kriegman and Steinberg illustrate a polite tension between the power couple as the mayoral race gets underway. The politesse deteriorates as an already embattled campaign staff – and a family – deal with new revelations that Weiner was still sexting women not his wife while the marriage was going through a rough patch after his departure from congress.
The horror of a relationship in crisis has rarely been more poignant than in this new documentary. Weiner casts the press as the monsters in a haunted New York, with Weiner as the chagrined, can’t-help-himself sorcerer summoning his own demons. His long face twitches and hums with mischief. His wife’s face, molded poker-straight by years working in politics, is a riveting foil as it struggles not to release the violence behind her eyes. Wear clothes you can squirm in.
Equally hideous is the portrait of political race as cavalcade of imploding values. In this paranoiac and claustrophobic film, candidates and constituents evince no interest in candidate Weiner beyond his morals, affecting to take his philandering as a personal insult. Talking heads with no stake but ratings wield enormous power: On his radio show, Howard Stern persuades a porn-ready individual to turn herself into a campaign sideshow based on the qualification that she once helped Weiner to phone-cheat on his wife.
At home, Weiner’s wife and child look endangered not just by the cameras and microphones of a hostile outside world but also by the mendacious tail-spinner they call Daddy. Weiner’s scandal threatens Abedin’s whole world including her career – at one point she’s informed that if her husband keeps wagging in public, Abedin may not be welcome on Clinton’s presidential campaign staff.
The documentary cannot be accused of maligning Weiner. It was clearly made by a friend, and it presents a complex and very human politician, funny, smart, incapable of self-doubt and increasingly incapable of self-censorship. Weiner’s a delightful companion and a bracing tragic hero, and although the end has already been told (Weiner is not now the mayor of New York, but a columnist for the Daily News), this will always be a campaign movie as nail-biting as they come.
But just think: What if the million bucks spent producing a House of Cards episode got spent on a news team covering political dealmaking – the House Bill of the Week, the story of how a particular piece of legislation got its yeas and nays? The quid pro quos, the handshakes, the golf vacations. Then of course some lucky bill would make it to the finals round in the senate. Guns, education, jobs, environment – think of the ratings. Money makes people talk. We’d get the high-drama story if we tried, no matter how hard lawmakers and lobbyists tried to slam the door. It would be good TV and it’d be good for the country. It shouldn’t take a dick pic to put the job of running our country on the news.
photos courtesy of IFC Films
released by IFC Films
U.S. | 2016 | 100 minutes | English
in limited release May 20, 2016