Sundance 2016: Sex Scandals and Hanging With the Obamas

Doc on Anthony Weiner sexting disaster and a recreation of POTUS courtship bring the political power couples

Anthony Weiner, the disgraced former Congressman and one-time mayoral candidate who's the subject of the documentary 'Weiner.' Credit: Sean McGing

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ost of us, if we're extremely lucky, will never be caught in the middle of a highly publicized media-circus frenzy. Any folks who go into Weiner, the documentary that covers Anthony Weiner's 2013 mayoral run-cum-second chance at a viable political career — and the subsequent flame-out that happens when a second scandal emerges — looking for, say, Hilary Clinton dirt, or proof that Team Clinton meddled with the film's editing, will be sorely disappointed. (At the premiere's Q&A, co-directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg went on the record as saying that no scenes were removed at the behest of any third party.) This is not the juicy, damning portrait of prominent Democrats involved with an in-progress presidential campaign that the GOP was hoping for or that beaucoup prescreening rumors suggested. Abandon all hope, ye who enter in search of ammunition to take down left-leaning figureheads.

If, on the other hand, you've ever been curious as to what it is like to be in the eye of a political sex-scandal shitstorm — my god, are you ever in luck.

That you-are-there sinking sensation is Weiner's bread and butter, as the film charts Scrappy Tony's attempts to win back the hearts and minds of voters and erase the memory of his past indiscretions. We see him hit the streets and lead parades, shake hands and kiss babies, strategize with his team and, when it's time for the heavy guns, bring out his power-player spouse Huma Abedin to stump for him. Fellow candidates try to use Weiner's 2011 Twitter dick-pic disgrace against him at debates, and are roundly booed. He begins to lead in the polls, and things seem to be turning around for the former late-night TV show punchline. Then word of a new rash of sexting back-and-forths, this time with a 22-year-old casino worker named Sydney Leathers, and everything comes tumbling down.

As Kriegman explained after the screening, the fact that he'd served as Weiner's congressional chief of staff before going into filmmaking had undoubtedly helped him get an all-access pass when he pitched his old boss on documenting the comeback campaign. The idea, he said, was to chronicle a phoenix-like rise in action. Instead, he and his co-director Steinberg bore witness to a worst-case-scenario catastrophe: Aides scramble to control the spin and establish a flattering timeline; press conferences featuring a grim Weiner and an even grimmer Abedin, in full Good Wife supportive mode, try to address the issue and retain dignity; and any attempt at talking about the actual issues takes a backseat to sound, fury and some choice Carlos Danger one-liners.

It's a harrowing portrait of a political Hindenberg, one that neither flatters nor outright flatlines its subject as a public figure — it simply observes every pitfall, meltdown and frantic avoidance of a stalking Leathers (code name: Pineapple) on the way to a crushing loss. The film reiterates the subject's highs and lows, which means it works better as a document than as a deconstruction of the man himself. You knew going in that Weiner never backs down from a fight, whether it's Lawrence O'Donnell or a trash-talking customer at a bagel shop. You knew that he had big ideas, bigger character flaws, and, per Antony, "a virtually unlimited ability to fuck things up." You knew that sordid media sensationalism trumps all. And you will leave thinking those same exact things.

The real surprise of Weiner is that he isn't the film's most compelling, complex or contradictory Shakespearean character; that would be Huma, who comes off as both the embodiment of grace under pressure and a human death stare. An intelligent, savvy political figure in her own right, Abedin is the backbone of the movie — watch her weather public snideness with stand-by-your-man steeliness, eloquent defenses and defusing 1,000-watt smiles, at least when she's not criticizing her husband's choice in trousers. But she's also the doc's wounded heart, the person who reminds you that there were human beings behind all those tabloid headlines. A passing comment about events that happened "when we were thinking of separating" leaves a mark, and by the sixth or seventh shot of Mrs. Weiner sitting in the background, fuming in a way that betrays her practiced poker face, the disappointment is palpable. She dutifully appears next to her husband at press conferences and campaign ads (until a limit is eventually reached), even as he — and we — know she deserves better. When you decide to run for office, Huma, you have our vote. 

The Weiners weren't the only real political power couple who showed up on Sundance screens, although the second dynamic duo got the fictional avatar treatment. Southside With You rewinds back to Chicago the summer of '89, when a lanky young Harvard law student and summer associate at Sidley Austin took his female mentor at the firm out on ... well, one of them doesn't want to call it a date, per se. They go to an Afrocentric art exhibit and stroll around the park on the way to a community meeting. They discuss everything from the merits of Good Times to drum rituals and desserts (he likes pie, she prefers ice cream). Her name is Michelle Robinson; the mixed-race gentleman who's trying to woo her goes by the handle Barack Hussein Obama, and what you're essentially watching is a dual superhero origin story.

That there's no Carlos Danger bombshells or strained clear-the-room requests to cameramen here is a given; writer-director Richard Tanne treats the future first-family heads' courtship as a breezy, chatty affair, going out of his way to demonstrate that from the very start, this was a meeting of equals. He has his actors — Parker Sawyers and co-producer Tika Sumpter, both excellent — evoke the POTUS and FLOTUS 1.0 versions without resorting to outright SNL-style mimicry, and lets their bickering and bantering back-and-forth carry the picture, along with providing the we-know-what-comes-next sense of import. (Barack's passionate pleas to local Chicagoans at a church might as well be a semaphore translation of his career-making 2004 DNC speech.) Before the premiere, people were saying this was the Obamas' Before Sunrise; so long as it doesn't end with something like the Weiners' vérite Before Midnight, a trilogy with this creative trio is damned near a must. Meanwhile, the fest's first date-to-last straw arc of power-coupling will do nicely, thanks.