Weiner review: an unsparing portrait of politics and a gift that keeps giving

Documentary about former congressman Anthony Weiner and his wife Huma Abedin channels the spirit of the best and most surreal political journalism

Joe McGinnisss book The Selling of a President is widely regarded as a peerless look inside the inner workings of a presidential campaign. It paints a warts-and-all picture of the neurotic, unhinged politician one Richard Nixon that the world came to know in greater depth after the scandal that ended his career. It was also a cautionary tale for any politician who ever thought about giving a journalist almost unlimited access to their campaign.

That warning went unheard by the group running Anthony Weiners disastrous mayoral bid in 2014, and documentary fans should rejoice for it. The resulting film is a riveting excursion into fear and loathing on the campaign trail. The film caused a stir before its premiere because of the access the team got to not only Weiner but also his wife, Huma Abedin, who is Hillary Clintons top aide.

The couples relationship dominates much of the action. Their marriage was already strained following Weiners 2011 resignation from the US House of Representatives, following leaks to the press that he sent sexts to several women. (Its tested after Weiner again succumbs to temptation and sends more explicit pictures.) The film puts their relationship under an unflinching microscope. We see them in their kitchen, feeding their child and having increasingly tense conversations.

The documentary team of Josh Kreigman and Elyse Steinberg do more than focus on the pics, though. Weiner is presented as a passionate career politician, a leader who took on the Republicans who tried to block healthcare assistance for 9/11 first responders. Hes clearly a gifted orator who knows what makes people tick but just cant seem to stop himself from ruining the hard work hes done to rebuild his reputation.

After the second scandal, when MSNBC journalist Lawrence ODonnell asks Weiner What is wrong with you, its hard to not empathise with his frustration. Unlike Alex Gineys Lance Armstrong documentary, which charted the cyclists fall, its hard to feel complete contempt for this politician. It feels more like a political tragedy that a comedy writer like Armando Ianucci would construct, especially when one aide screams about implementing the McDonalds plan a plot to sneak Weiner into his own celebration party via fast food restaurant, because one of the people he sexted is waiting for him outside.

Eventually, the film becomes about Weiners enthusiasm and apparent inability to understand when he should back down. He soldiers on, regardless of the pain he inflicts on his family and closest aides. His energy leads him to surreal ends: Colombian and Israeli celebrations, even finding himself MC on a Caribbean parade float.

Its that total access which makes the documentary a compelling, deep dive into a scandal that so many, especially the New York Post and Stephen Colbert, had painted as the simple and crude case of one prurient politician. Weiner is abused in the street, his marriage to an Arab raised in an ugly altercation yet even in these brutal scenes he rarely asks for the cameras to leave.

The only time he shows frustration with the film-makers is when he asks whether flies on the wall should be able to ask questions. That inability to stop himself in front of a camera is his biggest asset and biggest flaw. For Steinberg and Kreigman its the gift that keeps on giving.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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