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film review

Weiner

'They don't do nuance. Headline writers and editorial pages – they're the opposite of nuance," says a rueful Anthony Weiner, and he ought to know: Weiner, a riveting chronicle of the bulldog Brooklyn politician's attempted comeback from a 2011 sexting scandal, is a case study in blunt-force media trauma.

The winner of the U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance filmfest, Weiner is framed and fuelled by those unnuanced headlines that you may believe have already told you this story: From the punning New York Post front page trumpeting the crotch shot that got away ("Weiner Exposed") to the New York Daily News greeting Weiner's 2013 political re-entry ("He's Got Some Balls") and the media bacchanal that erupted weeks later, over revelations in the middle of his campaign for Democratic nominee for mayor of New York, that he had exchanged previously undisclosed explicit photos and texts with a young woman.

But Weiner – which is co-directed by Josh Kriegman, a former staffer for the erstwhile congressman, and Elyse Steinberg, who has made docs for PBS – takes us behind the headlines and into the backrooms, extracting a fascinating portrait of a political car crash that unfolds in excruciating slo-mo.

Hatched as a tick-tock of a quixotic – if eminently American – redemption story, Weiner begins with a reminder that its unlikely hero had made his name battling obstinate Republicans who refused to fund health care for Sept. 11 first responders. He has energy to burn, and two years after stepping down in disgrace, he hungers to get off the sidelines. Besides, there was his wife, Huma Abedin, a close confidant of Hillary Clinton, to consider. "She was very eager to get her life back that I had taken from her," Weiner explains to Kriegman and Steinberg's cameras. "To clean up the mess that I had made, running for mayor was the straightest line to do it."

In the beginning, the path looks surprisingly straight. We get an up-tempo montage of Weiner HQ growing from three staffers to dozens of young and fresh-faced cubicle warriors working the phone banks, as KISS sings on the soundtrack about being "back in the New York groove." The rhetorical pivot from personal to political is now so common in American political life as to be a cliché: At a fundraiser, Abedin explains to a room of potential donors, "Our challenges, what we went through – it's nothing compared to what so many families in this city face every day." Despite the best efforts of a few columnists riding tired hobby horses, voters shrug off Weiner's long-ago discretions, and respond to his genuine love of campaigning. By the halfway mark of the 13-week campaign, he is topping the polls.

And then the shopworn redemption script goes up in flames, as a fame magnet by the name of Sydney Leathers comes forward to tell all about her virtual encounters with Weiner, including accounts of frequent phone sex. She does a quickie porn film, goes on Fox News – and then, in Weiner's final act, which plays like a sad comic opera, she takes Howard Stern's suggestion and shows up at Weiner's primary-night consolation party to try to confront her former aural sexter.

The film may be called Weiner, but its most devastating – and devastated – character is Abedin. When the new scandal breaks, we catch her and Weiner together in the back room of Campaign HQ. She can barely stand to look at him, but minutes later she smiles her way through a 30-second statement of support and forgiveness in front of a battery of cameras. And then she spends the rest of her screen time looking like a caged animal.

Still, she remains a political one: As a crisis-management meeting breaks up, and Weiner's spokeswoman readies to leave his apartment, Abedin warns her about the potential effect of a photograph catching her looking upset. "Just a quick optics thing," she says. "There are photographers outside. You will look happy?" Then she adds: "I'm saying this for you!"