The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can a new film make Anthony Weiner more than just a punch line?

Anthony Weiner in a still from “Weiner,” a documentary by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg. (IFC Films/Sundance Selects)

Anthony Weiner’s name was always an easy punch line — in a grade-school insult kind of way. But the former congressman all but gift-wrapped the joke when he accidentally broadcast a picture of his bulging boxer briefs on Twitter in 2011. An unfortunate moniker became a fitting one. The New York Post had a field day.

But there’s more to the man than extramarital sexting. That’s what documentarians Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg set out to prove with “Weiner,” a fascinating account of the Brooklyn native’s failed bid to become New York City’s mayor in 2013.

Before he was a filmmaker, Kriegman worked in politics as Weiner’s chief of staff in the mid-aughts. But before you assume that the movie was a favor to Kriegman’s former boss, consider this: Weiner isn’t thrilled about the documentary, which has been gaining buzz since winning the grand jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

He doesn't want to talk about it, he said via email — he hasn't even seen the movie. He elaborated a bit on "Larry King Now" in February, complaining that the filmmakers used clips of his wife, Huma Abedin, without her permission. Of course, there's considerable interest in seeing her onscreen, because she's long been one of Hillary Clinton's closest confidantes. And there's something inexplicably gripping about watching the inner workings of a struggling marriage.

But there was also his pride.

“Look, I know how the story ends,” Weiner told King. “I’m not eager to watch it and relive it.”

Steinberg and Kriegman began working together a few years ago, directing a PBS special about prison reform, for example. But they were both interested in a verité-style character study. Kriegman thought Weiner would be a good subject but didn’t think it would pan out after he floated the idea and got a tepid response. But on the day Weiner announced he was going to run for mayor (for the second time; he also ran in 2005), he texted Kriegman and asked whether the director wanted to come over with a camera.

“I literally ran over there,” Kriegman said. “And, as you saw in the film, was by his side from the day he announced he was running all the way through to the end of the election.”

Steinberg had never met Weiner before he agreed to the documentary. Like most people, she had only a vague notion of the man beyond the salacious details she picked up through headlines.

“What I discovered by meeting Anthony and looking through the footage was that my preconceived notions and expectations were not in line with reality and who he is,” she said over the phone recently. “He was a much more human, complex person.”

In the documentary, Weiner comes across as many things: egotistical, funny, dishonest, cocky, self-effacing, charismatic and pathetic, among other descriptors. One moment he’s joyously waving a rainbow flag to the delight of a gay pride parade crowd, and the next he’s getting into a screaming match during a campaign stop with a voter who calls him a scumbag. “Takes one to know one, jackass,” Weiner counters before the men launch into an ugly verbal brawl.

For a while, Kriegman and Steinberg thought they might be filming a redemption story. Weiner was leading in the polls, and the public clearly didn’t care about his Internet habits. On the contrary, when other candidates brought up Weiner’s indiscretions during debates, the crowd would start booing.

“And then, of course, new revelations from his scandal resurfaced, and the whole thing went in a very different direction,” Kriegman said.

A 22-year-old named Sydney Leathers came forward and revealed that she had exchanged explicit messages with Weiner after he had copped to the initial round of sexting.

To the filmmakers, it didn’t matter whether Weiner was winning or losing. They were less interested in where the story went than how to best capture their subject.

“Our intentions stayed the same throughout,” Steinberg said. “We wanted to show a human portrait of a person who had been reduced to a caricature.”

The filmmakers had nearly limitless access to Weiner and his staff. They ended up with 400 hours of footage, including intimate moments of the mayoral hopeful and Abedin at home with their son, the emotional and angry reactions of Weiner staffers when the scandal hit the news, and an antic chase scene during which Weiner tries to avoid a confrontation with Leathers.

There was also one very awkward staring match between Weiner and Abedin, who appears to be on the verge of tears or screaming or both, just after Leathers came forward.

“On one hand, there was a sense of: ‘Wow, I can’t believe I’m here right now,’ ” Kriegman said of filming the exchange, which was at Weiner’s campaign headquarters. But it didn’t last long. In a rare move, the couple asked Kriegman to leave so they could discuss the situation in private.

Weiner’s staff didn’t question the presence of the directors, whose access was key to a film that ends up being a character portrait, an invitation to the eye of a scandal storm, and even a commentary on today’s political races.

“I think there are some obvious parallels between Anthony and Donald Trump,” Steinberg said. “I think they both understand that, in order to be successful in today’s 24-hour news cycle, you need to put on a show. By being brash and portraying an air of authenticity, you get media attention and you also get the vote.”

The movie is also a critique on the media’s role in the scandal. Even after Weiner had answered the same questions again and again, the press persisted in asking only about his transgressions. Even if journalists shy away from allegations of rape and abuse, as Woody Allen’s son, Ronan Farrow, recently claimed, they apparently can’t cover political sex scandals too thoroughly.

The impact of the Leathers revelation, on both the campaign and Weiner’s relationship, was instantaneous.

He lost the support of voters, including, it seemed, the one he shared an apartment with. In the movie, Weiner gets into a viral-ready blowup with MSNBC personality Lawrence O’Donnell on the air. Afterward, Weiner rewatches the clip at home, chuckling. Abedin looks on in depressed horror before leaving the room, saying she can’t watch.

According to Steinberg and Kriegman, the response to the movie has been varied. Some people see Weiner as a sympathetic character; others remain disgusted by his lack of self-control and peculiar sexual habits. To some, he will always be the cyberspace flasher who deserved to be an easy target for late-night talk show hosts.

The filmmakers asked Weiner why he thought people have been so hard on him.

“I lied to them,” he says in the movie. Then after a few moments of thought: “And I have a funny name.”