Beyond Scandalous Selfies: Documenting Anthony Weiner's Downfall A new documentary shows the rise and fall of the former congressman with unimaginable access. Co-directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg explain how they got the story.
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Beyond Scandalous Selfies: Documenting Anthony Weiner's Downfall

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Beyond Scandalous Selfies: Documenting Anthony Weiner's Downfall

Beyond Scandalous Selfies: Documenting Anthony Weiner's Downfall

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We started the program today with politics. And we end up there, talking about a name you might remember - Anthony Weiner. Now, if you are from New York City, you might think of him first as a congressman from Queens who never backed down from a fight for the city or its people.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTHONY WEINER: You vote yes if you believe yes. We are following our procedure. I will not yield to the gentleman. And the gentleman will observe regular order. The gentleman will observe regular order.

MARTIN: But if you are not from New York - and let's face it, even if you are - what you probably remember is the bulging underpants, the famous picture published from the congressman's Twitter account that made him a household name and a punch line back in 2011. Weiner resigned from Congress, and his public profile might have ended there, but it didn't. Two years later he was back in the public eye, running to be mayor of New York City. He let two filmmakers follow him to capture what he hoped would be his triumphant return. But let's just say that didn't go as planned either.

It was all captured in a new documentary out now called "Weiner." The co-directors are Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg. And they may have given us one of the most intimate portrayals of political failure in modern American history. And Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg join us now from our studios in New York. Josh and Elyse, welcome, thank you so much for speaking with us.

JOSH KRIEGMAN: Hi.

ELYSE STEINBERG: Hi. Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: Josh, I'm going to start with you. It has to be said up front that you are a former chief of staff to the Congressman working in his district. Then you left politics to become a filmmaker. How did the idea for this project come about and do you remember what you envisioned when you first started thinking about it?

KRIEGMAN: Yeah, that's right. I did meet him working for him in Congress when I was working in politics. And then after leaving politics, I moved into filmmaking and started working with Elyse. And it was after his scandal and resignation that we started a conversation with him about the possibility of making a documentary, figuring out if there might be a story to be told that kind of gets passed the punch line version that he became through the course of his scandal. And that was a conversation that I had with him that really went back and forth over the course of a couple of years, actually, until he decided that he was going to run for mayor of New York City.

And it was on that morning that he announced he was running that he actually sent me a text early that morning saying he was in the race, and if I wanted to come with a camera to shoot for the documentary I could. And of course, I said I'll be right over and literally ran over and started filming from the first day that he announced he was running all the way through to the end of the election.

MARTIN: Why do you think he let you do that?

STEINBERG: This is Elyse. It's one of the questions that Josh and I wondered about ourselves. And it's a question that we actually posed to Anthony. And he does give us an answer when he says that he wanted to be viewed as the full person that he was instead of a punch line. And that was our intention going into this film.

MARTIN: You know, one of the things that the film captures that I think many people may have forgotten is why people liked him to begin with.

KRIEGMAN: Yeah, I mean, part of it was he embodied this sort of ethos of being a kind of a happy warrior for the progressive left. You know, one of the ways that he became well-known was - actually ironically - was through using the tools of modern media, like YouTube and Twitter and understanding how to mix it up on cable news in ways that went viral.

He was brash. He was aggressive. He wasn't afraid to speak his mind. And that was something that really spoke to many on the progressive left who were eager, I think, for that kind of voice.

MARTIN: But obviously the central problem here is - you know, here's a guy, immensely talented, who did something incredibly stupid and avoidable. Nobody did this to him. He did this to himself.

KRIEGMAN: I mean, you're right. This was, of course, of his own design. And he had no one to blame but himself for what happened to him. But nevertheless, he really was through the course of this scandal - you know, his entire 20-year career was really reduced to this one thing, to this punch line.

MARTIN: Well, there is a clip from him where he's trying to explain or he seems to be explaining his behavior. And I'll play it and then I'll ask you about.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WEINER")

WEINER: Do my personal relationships suffer because of the superficial and transactional nature of my political relationships, or is it the other way around? Do you go into politics because you're not connecting on that other level? And did the technology that undid me allow me to be in touch with people and have kind of more superficial relationships? You know, I don't know. I mean, look, it gets back to the very premise. you know, politicians probably are wired in some way that needs attention. But I'm not blaming that, for sure. But I don't - I think it is hard to have normal relationships.

MARTIN: Did you ask him directly, Josh, why'd you do it? Or how did that particular passage come about?

KRIEGMAN: Well, I remember asking a question about politics, actually, about what it means to be a politician. And he is speaking to an aspect of his character that served him well in politics, actually, was thriving in this world of transactional and superficial relationships and craving and needing attention and affirmation. You know, that's part of what made him successful as a politician.

And on the flip side, it's the same characteristic that ultimately led to problems, you know, in other aspects of his life where he says he wasn't able to connect on that deeper level and was engaging in these online, you know, virtual relationships - like, he was playing a videogame is how he describes it.

MARTIN: You know, there's an interesting aspect of your film is that we get a clearer picture of a figure that many people find intriguing. And that is Anthony Weiner's wife, Huma Abedin, who is a power player in her own right - a key advisor, a confidant to Hillary Clinton. And also, she's just an intriguing figure to many people. She seems to be a very private person who is not terribly interested in being out front. So I was curious about how she related to you through the filming of this.

STEINBERG: I think in our film viewers get to see a more multifaceted side of her. She's a wife, a mother, a person with a really important job. You know, Huma has been a political professional for decades, and you get to see that.

MARTIN: One of the questions that doesn't - it kind of walks up to but doesn't answer fully is why does she put up with it? And I was just wondering if you ever asked her directly why does she put up with him.

KRIEGMAN: No, I don't think I ever did. I mean, there are a few moments that are in the film where, you know, she and I, you know, have some exchanges about how she's feeling in the moment and how the campaign is going. But, you know, our hope with the film is that you see they are a complex and nuanced couple like any other. And it's not necessarily - you know, it doesn't necessarily boil down to easy answers.

MARTIN: There is a clip where he talks a little bit about their relationship. And - because it is obviously the kind of thing - look, let's just be honest. It's the kind of question that's really none of our business. It's their business. It's not our business. But it is the question that everybody wants to know.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY "WEINER")

WEINER: I mean, there was a period of time that - I mean, I lied to her. I mean, I lied to her, too. I didn't, like, fess up to her and then lie to the world. I was trying - the primary person I was trying to protect finding out about this was Huma.

KRIEGMAN: Did Huma want you to get back into politics?

WEINER: She did. She was very eager to get her life back that I taken from her, to clean up the mess that I had made. Running for mayor was the straightest line to do it.

MARTIN: So what do you want people to draw from this film?

KRIEGMAN: Our hope for the film, really, is that it does get beyond just Anthony and Huma's story and this one mayoral campaign in New York City and really speaks to this larger question of where we are in our politics today and specifically how much the political conversation really is driven by spectacle and sensationalism and this appetite for entertainment. And of course, you don't have look very far to see that playing out in a phenomenon like Donald Trump.

You know, I think Anthony Weiner and Donald Trump are very different people. And obviously, they're on different sides of the political aisle. And I think, you know, Anthony has a kind of ideological core and a knowledge of the issues that I'm not sure Trump has expressed. But at the end of the day, they both seem to understand what has - seems to have become kind of a fundamental truth of American politics today, which is that to have a voice in the conversation, you sort of have to figure out a way to put on a show.

And so our hope is that this film and watching Anthony's campaign, you get a chance to see some of the realities of what's going on in our politics today.

MARTIN: That's Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg. Their documentary "Weiner" opened Friday. Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, thank you so much for joining us.

KRIEGMAN: Thanks for having us.

STEINBERG: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: For Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Follow us on Twitter @npratc. Or follow me @NPRMichel. We are back next week. Until then, thank you for listening. And we hope you have a great night.

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