It might be time to admit that the political sex scandal is our era’s version of the Eleusinian Mysteries, those ancient Greek ritual voyages into the underworld that atoned for sex and death and celebrated regeneration. The litany and theater of it never varies: A male elected official has some sex “outside his marriage”—with a hooker, a lover, a disembodied someone on the phone five times a day—and then “gets caught.” He plunges into the maelstrom of the 24-hours news cycle of shame, a grim and horrible place few have visited. Finally he emerges on TV, facing hundreds of millions of invisible eyes, seeking their forgiveness. He is not alone. Beside him stands the Vestal Virgin of Humiliation, the high priestess of his redemption. She’s always dignified, dry-eyed, a figure of enduring love and disappointed devotion.
The cameras feast on her face. We can’t look away because without her there is no mystery. Essential to the ritual is that we never get to see her for long enough. Her silence is tantalizing. We wait for her to speak, but even if she does, it’s not enough. She always exits the way she came, back out of the camera’s eye, leaving us wanting more.
What is she thinking?
Hours of punditry are devoted to this question, media shrinks make their brands interpreting it, whole books have been written dissecting and theorizing on it. With Weiner, co-directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg have made a documentary film that deals with the very public fallout from former Congressman Anthony Weiner's sex scandals and their impact, not least of which on his wife, Huma Abedin, an aide to Hillary Clinton.
The ritual of the publicly suffering political wife, and the weird purging role it seems to have on public gender relations in the post-feminist era, is even more fascinating now that one of these Vestal Virgins is running for president, having achieved the most powerful position ever occupied by a female in American history.
Like Bill Clinton, Weiner apparently is, or was, what is now called a sex addict, although the French name for that sort of man, lapin chaud (literally, hot rabbit) is less clinical and a lot more fun. What does it feel like to love a sex addict? Amy Schumer put it this way in her HBO special: “It’s really fun at first because you think you’re like, so hot, but then you realize he would fuck a mailbox.”
One of Weiner’s “mailboxes” turns up about halfway through the documentary. She’s an Indiana girl named Sydney Leathers who eventually extended her 15 minutes of fame as a self-outed phone sex partner of the man running for mayor of New York by attempting to sell on E-Bay bits of her labia that she’d had removed during plastic surgery.
The Weiner movie is compulsively watchable because it reveals some of what happens after the public display, when the couple retreat to their apartment and into the back seats of limos. We learn exactly what it’s like to be “living in a nightmare” as Abedin puts it.
From the opening shot, Abedin, barefoot and wearing a lemon yellow sweater in her apartment, steals the show. The movie is about her husband, and his manic style is engaging—it is impossible not to come away liking the guy. But it’s hard to take your eyes off this woman maintaining her dignity in the face of her husband’s humiliation, a humiliation that is hers too by proxy, all in the presence of a rolling camera.
As the film begins, she and Weiner are embarking on his mayoral campaign, with Abedin an integral part of it. Weiner even credits her for his decision to run, saying he is doing it because Abedin “wanted to get her her life back.’ How badly she wanted that, and what that life is, and how integral to “that life” is political power becomes more clear as the previously camera-shy Clinton aide appears with him in ads, speaks at his announcement, and makes fundraising calls to the extended donor network she has access to via her years with Clinton.
But when Leathers shows up, Abedin takes on her essential role in the ritual. (She had not appeared publicly with him during the initial sexting scandal in 2011). Stepping out into the flashbulbs and bank of TV cameras, she read a statement. “I strongly believe this is between us,” she says. “Our marriage, like many others, has had its ups and downs. It took a whole lot of work and a whole lot of therapy to get to a place where I could forgive Anthony.”
Husband and wife retreat. The public is left sanctified. Days of analysis follow. Why would Abedin do this? On CNN, Paul Begala offers a quote from Blaise Pascal, “The heart has its reasons,” which Chris Cuomo counters with some Shakespeare: “Has she eaten of the insane root that devours and takes men prisoner?”
Besides plumbing the mysteries of political wifely devotion, the movie bears witness to the insane loads of degradation and punishment to which ambitious people like Weiner—and Abedin—will submit in order to win public office. Politics, they say, ain’t beanbag, but New York City in the 24-hour news cycle era is a Thai boxing pit. Weiner’s every public appearance becomes a cage match in which he tests his manic energy and ambition and wit against dozens of members of the New York City press corps, who could now care less about his health care plan. Every campaign stop becomes a farce of “off-topic” questions: “Can we trust you?” “How many more women are there?”
The second half of the movie shows the final excruciating weeks of the campaign. Reading "Carlos Danger" (an alias Weiner used in communication with Leathers) jokes on every tabloid headline, hearing voters call him names and watching late-night comedians riff on him, Weiner's crazy determination does not waver.
Back at the apartment, Huma glares at him, often while devouring slices of takeout pizza that never smear her red lipstick. She appears to be in a permanent state of biting her tongue, aware that cameras are rolling. When Hillaryland bosses advise her not to appear with Weiner in any more campaign ads, she opts out of a network interview, to the chagrin of her husband, who knows that losing his Vestal Virgin of forgiveness represents the real end of the campaign.
Filmmaker Kriegman bagged hundreds of hours of intimate footage with the couple because he had worked closely with Weiner on his 2005 mayoral campaign and then later served him as a Congressional staffer. He told Newsweek that Weiner agreed to do the film because he hoped it might re-brand him as a more nuanced character than the underwear-sexting cartoon character he had become after the first sexing scandal. Kriegman believes the film succeeds at that.
“We have been gratified to see the audience come away with the idea that his story and his character is whole lot more complex and nuanced from what you have seen in the cable news clips and tabloid headlines,” he said.
The movie does the same with the iconic image of the wife standing by her man.
“You see that judgment placed on Huma, for staying with him,” co-director Steinberg said. “In the same way that Anthony was caricatured, she was too. And our goal is to show the other side of her, as well. She is one of many women whose husband did something embarrassing, and she came under judgment, and one of the things we wanted to bring up, is the judgment placed on these women. Our hope is that you get to see them as human beings. Huma is a wife, a mother and person with a very important job.”
The filmmakers have not spoken with the couple since it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, but Kriegman says he expects Weiner will go and see it, sometime.