Compared to What: The Improbable Journey of Barney Frank: Tribeca Review

Michael Chandler
This intimate biographical portrait benefits immensely from its subject's quick wit and refreshing candor

Sheila Canavan and Michael Chandler's documentary chronicles the life and career of the first openly gay congressman.

Anyone who’s watched the news or C-SPAN over the last decades knows that Barney Frank is a perpetually entertaining camera-ready subject, and the sharp-tongued politico doesn’t disappoint in Sheila Canavan and Michael Chandler’s biographical documentary receiving its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. Chronicling his 40-year career while delivering an intimately personal portrait of the United States’ first openly gay congressman, Compared to What: The Improbable Journey of Barney Frank should prove catnip to political junkies.

Given apparently unfettered access to their subject as well as his husband Jim Ready, the filmmakers wasted no opportunity, filming everything from him dropping his shirts off at the laundry to he and Ready filling out their marriage license forms to their 2012 wedding reception. It’s a particular pleasure to watch the famously cantankerous politico warmly interacting with his spouse, who’s clearly mellowed him.

Frank is seen in numerous interview sessions, some conducted by his friend, author Andrew Tobias, candidly discussing his personal life and decades-long career. Although intensely interested in politics when he was a just a teenager, he realized he was gay at the age of thirteen and didn’t think that a political career was possible.

But he eventually ran for the Massachusetts House of Representatives anyway, his amusing campaign slogan being “Neatness isn’t Everything.” He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1980, winning 52 per cent of the vote. He served for the next 32 years, winning every subsequent election by a wide margin.

He was also deeply closeted and avoided sex for many years for fear of being exposed. But he came out after seven years in Congress when his sexual orientation was revealed in a book written by one of his colleagues. In an interview, journalist Mike Barnicle recalls that House leader Tip O’Neill once sorrowfully declared to him that Frank’s career was over, since he was about to “come out of the room.”

Utilizing generous amounts of archival footage, the film recounts the highs and lows of Frank’s political career, the latter represented by the 1989 scandal in which it was revealed that he had a sexual relationship with his live-in aide and driver and was accused of allowing him to run a prostitution ring out of his home. Frank was cleared of that charge, but was reprimanded by Congress for several minor offenses.

The extensive clips of Frank during public appearances and congressional hearings pricelessly display his acerbic wit, with one highlight being his sparring with prosecutor Kenneth Starr during the Clinton impeachment hearings. Seen campaigning for current Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, he tells the crowd, “Vote Democratic…we’re not perfect, but they’re nuts.”

His lengthy tenure on the House Financial Services Committee is extensively chronicled, including the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis in which he was criticized by conservatives for his support of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and his role in the creation of the 2010 Dodd-Frank bill which restored many of the financial regulations that had been erased since the 1980s.

Featuring interviews with many of his friends and colleagues, including his Harvard roommates, one of whom says that he was himself gay and had a longtime crush on Frank, the film is most successful when it concentrates on its subject’s personal life. His candor in discussing his sexuality and other subjects is endlessly refreshing in this era when politicians are mostly defined by their timidity.

Leave it to Frank to have the last word. Discussing the movie in a post-screening conversation with Alec Baldwin (one of its executive producers) after seeing it for the first time, he offered his own blunt critique. “To be honest, it’s your life and there are some things I would have done differently in the film,” he commented.  

Tribeca Film Festival (Pack Creek Productions)

Directors/producers: Sheila Canavan, Michael Chander

Executive producers: Alec Baldwin, Geralyn White Dreyfous, Jamie Wolf

Composer: Michael Bacon

Not rated, 93 min.

 

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