Media columnist David Zurawik talks about Showtimes documentary on disgraced New York congressman Anthony Weiner. (Baltimore Sun video)
With the campaign-shaking news last week that the FBI is going back down the rabbit hole of Hillary Clinton emails as the result of an unrelated investigation of disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner's sexting with a 15-year-old girl, the documentary "Weiner" is not to be missed.
And, as coincidence (or the pop culture gods) would have it in this crazed political year, Showtime premiered it on TV last week. You can also stream it at the channel's website as part of a 30-day trial offer. (It had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.)
This is good business by Showtime that provides great political context for voters on a story that is rocking the presidential election.
The connection between Clinton's emails and Weiner, who is now on his third sexting scandal by my count, is Huma Abedin, Weiner's estranged wife and one of Clinton's top aides. FBI Director James Comey on Friday said investigators believe emails on a laptop involved in the bureau's probe of Weiner's sexting messages might be related to an investigation earlier this year of Clinton's emails that were kept on a private server. The laptop is believed to belong to Weiner and/or Abedin.
Since Comey sent a letter to members of Congress informing them on Friday of the emails, all political hell and then-some broke loose in Campaign 2016.
And at the bizarre center of it all is Weiner, a once highly promising political figure who has become a pathetic punchline for every late-night host looking for an easy laugh.
"Weiner" is the unblinking, backstage look at Weiner's 2013 campaign for mayor of New York that shows in clinical detail how out of control Weiner's political life and his marriage to Abedin had become.
It is a remarkable piece of fly-on-the-wall filmmaking by Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman. And, as bad as Weiner looks in the film, he does it all to himself. The film itself is remarkably even-handed.
The filmmakers open with a perfectly-paced and expertly-edited montage of Weiner at the top of his game as a young member of Congress passionately fighting for progressive causes. It resurrects a memory of what he looked like at the top of his career, which makes the depths to which he crashes all the darker.
Weiner is a narcissist, jerk, bully and liar. You can see all that behavior on display when his first texting scandal broke in 2011 and he and his then-friend, Jon Stewart, tried to mock CNN for covering it aggressively rather than focusing on policy. You can read my 2011 defense of CNN and attack on Stewart and Weiner here.
But as ethically bankrupt and emotionally stunted as Weiner seems to be, Kriegman and Steinberg generate empathy for him – even as they catalog his monumental failings. That might be the greatest measure of their fairness.
I love the repeated shots of Amedin and Weiner looking increasingly estranged from one another in their apartment as things go from bad to worse to full-scale disaster. She sits alone at a dinner table sawing away on a piece of pizza from a box as he watches videotape of himself imploding on cable TV.
Hearing some of the things he says and seeing some of the really bad choices he makes, you have to wonder what the judgment of voters will be if it is confirmed that Clinton State Department messages are on his laptop.
My favorite moment comes near the end of the film as Weiner is riding in a limousine and an off-camera voice asks him: "Has anyone ever told you it's hard to get you to talk about your feelings?"
"Let me ask you something," he responds. "There must be some species of fly that stays on the wall and talks. But I've never heard of one. Usually, isn't the fly on the wall technique have a little to do with the notion of not being seen or heard? You just kind of pick up what goes on around you?"