Anthony Weiner has become a cautionary tale, after resigning from Congress amidst a sexting scandal and flaming out in a mayoral race when more details of that scandal emerged. He has also become the subject of a critically acclaimed documentary. The important question isn’t how Anthony Weiner went from a celebrated congressman to a social pariah to a leader in a New York Mayoral race and back to disgrace — that much has been covered ad nauseam. The important question is why everyone loves a documentary about it.
The filmmakers behind Weiner got a hold of some interview footage with Sydney Leathers, the most prominent person directly involved in Anthony Weiner’s sexting scandal. Sean Hannity asked Leathers what she learned, to which she responded “Don’t meet your heroes. You realize how human they are. They have flaws. They definitely aren’t who you think they are.”
It’s interesting to me that someone who doesn’t appear to care about Anthony Weiner at all (not that she should), inadvertently put her finger on what’s so enticing about Weiner. Flip what she said on its head, and replace heroes with villains. If that can happen when you meet your heroes, it stands to reason that if you meet a villain, or someone who has been as intensely vilified as Anthony Weiner, you’ll realize how human they are. They have flaws. They definitely aren’t who you think they are.
That’s not to say that Weiner functions as a puff piece for the former Congressman; it’s a fly-on-the-wall, unblinking look at a man, warts and all, with filmmakers Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg given almost completely unfettered access to his mayoral campaign as it was happening.
Beyond the headlines we’ve all read, the videos we’ve all seen of one or all of Weiner’s many meltdowns, Kriegman and Steinberg dare to ask the question “who is the man behind these stories?” not to get any one desired answer, but just because it’s a question no one was asking.
Its approach and subject matter echo a fly-on-the-wall documentary from 2015 that similarly enticed audiences and critics into diving deeper into a story they’d only seen in the news. Finders Keepers told a story that may have been vaguely familiar, as it was covered by TV news outlets across the country: a man buys a grill to find a severed human foot inside of it. Turns out the foot belongs to a man who lost his leg in a plane accident that killed his father and was keeping the leg preserved as a memory. The film follows the subsequent legal battle for the foot, as the man who found it claims it now belongs to him. As if the jokes didn’t write themselves already, both people involved are what we would call “hicks” or “hillbillies.”
It's a funny story, and the filmmakers aren't afraid to have fun with it; but it's not a joke. Certainly the people involved don't see it as a joke, they don't see themselves as jokes, and these entries into cinema function so well because they offer a new perspective on these funny stories, rather than repeating the punchline and adding to the ridicule machine.
Not only does Finders Keepers deal with people whom many others have made objects of ridicule, it also intersperses media coverage of the event throughout, showing you both the headlines and the people behind them. While not capturing the attention that Weiner has, for obvious reasons, Finders Keepers still garnered praise from both critics and audiences, and even grabbed a few surprise nominations in several critics’ circles.
It’s a story that many people have heard with characters that many people have taken for granted, save for two filmmakers who decided that maybe this story involved humans — not heroes or villains, not freaks and weirdos. When filmmakers are able to dissect someone who people know of, but don’t really know, it seems to always be met with universal interest. That this last paragraph could be written about either film, Finders Keepers or Weiner, says a great deal about why both these films found success.