Weiner and the Political Punchline Paradigm

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A perfect documentary for an election cycle internet.

This election cycle more than any other, our nation has experienced the lies, scandals, and dirty underbellies of the candidates (and their subsequent memes) in inescapable media. The rise and fall of Bernie Sanders’s popularity and the defensive angst of his die-hards, the bashing of Hillary Clinton, and the alternate deification of/defecation upon psychopath Donald Trump have made many websites unreadable and many readers turn to their filters. Political cartoons have become advertisement rather than criticism, each candidate leaping into them in turn.

That’s the environment in which we find Weiner, albeit on a smaller scale. The documentary trails former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner, post-scandal and 2011 resignation, as he tries to mount a comeback bid in New York City’s mayoral race. Sparing no detail, the film explains the sexting scandal that killed a promising congressional career in the same cadence and style of its villains, scrolling the shaming news reports and videos across the bottom of the screen like an especially vocal news tickers. The shaming is thick but tackled head-on. Weiner, his wife and close Hillary adviser (known mostly by her first name Huma), and infant son invite the documentary crew into their home seemingly as a strategic move, showing their progress as a family.

When his campaign for mayor begins the same promise bubbles to the brim, his political effervescence overcoming the initial backlash to his scandal. Like Donald Trump, he’s a little loud, a little brash, and a little crude. And New Yorkers respect that. They initially boo down his opponents who dare bring up “values”, embracing his mistake and his wife’s forgiveness. The same feeling permeates his campaign team. Young people, young women, work phone banks and prepare communication strategies. His mom is there, calling voters. Forgiveness exists, coming first from his family.

The crew tackles the behind-the-scenes of a political family better than a black parody like House of Cards, juggling intimacy and work’s reality while each side jockeys for control. Huma, so close to Hillary Clinton that she officiated their wedding, slowly becomes her. The analogy is perfect: both women appear stronger than their husbands after being betrayed and struggle to keep a marriage together for the sake of their husbands’ careers (and then their own), followed by media (and popular) prejudice thereafter. Huma hates the spotlight and we understand why.

As Weiner ponders questions about his love of technology contributing to both his success and downfall, we face a constant barrage of inter-cut talk show coverage. It is full immersion in the memeification of politics, no longer just punditry spawned by the shenanigans and personal hatreds of William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal, but a virality without organization much closer to grassroots madness than toeing a party line. Weiner hopes, like Bernie Sanders, to wrangle the circus and make it work in his favor. Any press is good press. When the other shoe drops, we find all too well that while voters may forgive, our media will never let them forget.

The news breaks that Weiner, thought to have ended all sexual conversations with other women after his resignation, continued to be involved with various women. With similar black humor as The Lobster, Weiner himself ponders if the superficiality that led him to success at politics also doomed him to seek superficiality in his relationships. He hates what he’s done but continues to justify it as power leads to flirtation which leads to a different kind of power. With Bill Cosby still in the news and deans of colleges arrested for sex scandals each week, it’s not hard to understand the manipulation. Thankfully that’s not the point the documentary wants to tackle.

It watches as a spurned media brutalizes a liar with a funny name, New York Post headlines churning out faster than voters can find new candidates. Bernie, Trump, and Hillary have all faced their scandals (some more than others) and yet all still retain electability. The media continues to play relatively nice on all fronts. Why? Wiener lies to the circus and loses his cool. The relationship with the press is irrevocably damaged, especially when it’s more fun (and brings in more viewers) to cover a tailspin than to cover one of the other candidates. Voters can forgive but the media always remembers.

Gracefully, the tone shifts from an uphill battle to a horrorshow, drama coming from the situation but also from the very real and elegantly established relationship between Weiner and his wife, or Weiner and his staff. He fails to escape his position as punchline, but that’s the doomed position of every politician without the good graces of the media or indeed, the internet. Trump’s exploitation of this, jumping in front of it to push his own demeaning nicknames upon his opponents, speaks to both his success and his danger. While Bernie’s more rabid supporters rail against his own party, the fickleness of the American public can shift with just a week of coverage. Rabid supporters can become, like near the end of the film, a disillusioned man confronting you in a bakery.

So why let the crew film Weiner in the first place? To escape his fate as a political punchline? Retain dignity? His public meltdowns and private stress, shown unflinchingly in the documentary, refute these guesses. Is he addicted to attention, to power, like one must be to embrace public life? Or is he so lost in what he calls the “entertainment vortex” that he accepts a documentary as the closest anyone will get to a true depiction of events and vindication from a world set on making every loser a joke?

As a country still swirling around the same vortex, what will we do?

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Jacob Oller writes everywhere (Vanity Fair, The Guardian, Playboy, FSR, Paste, etc.) about everything that matters (film, TV, video games, memes, life).