Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank retired from office on January 3, 2013, after 32 years in the House of Representatives, and it’s become increasingly clear that no one has come close to filling the void he’s left among liberal politicians. A master debater, a blistering wit and a skilled negotiator, he brought a skill set to the art of legislating that’s not easy to replicate. His wit in particular is on full display in Compared to What: The Improbable Journey of Barney Frank, the entertaining and endearing documentary profile that had its world premiere on the closing day of the Tribeca Film Festival, followed by a Q&A with Frank and his husband Jim Ready, moderated by Alec Baldwin.
Though Frank spoke during the Q&A about the value of public service and the need to avoid cynicism, it’s evident that the current climate in Washington has taken a toll. At the beginning of the doc, he jokes that he knew it was time to step down when his attitude changed from “How can I help you?” to “Why are you bothering me?” And he says it’s a relief not to have to pretend to like certain people anymore.
At the age of 13, Frank dreamed of a political career but also knew he was gay, and thought the two were irreconcilable. Nonetheless, he ran for the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1972 and won, serving for eight years. And in 1980, he rose to the U.S. House of Representatives, succeeding Father Robert Drinan, who stepped down after the Pope instructed priests to leave political posts. (During the Q&A, Frank wondered what the Pope would have thought of his replacement being a homosexual.) Conscious of being part of “a despised minority,” Frank led a relatively chaste and unhappy social life until 1987, when he became the first member of Congress to voluntarily “come out of the room,” as Tip O’Neill, the wary House Speaker, hilariously phrased it. “You cannot live that way forever,” Frank reflected during the Q&A. “You cannot live holding a gun to your own head.”
Compared to What makes the case for Frank as a major gay-rights figure not just for that courageous decision, but for his outspoken stance on terrible legislative decisions like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act. (In one devilish clip, Frank jokes that the canard that same-sex unions threaten the institution of marriage sounds like “an argument made by someone in an institution.”)
The doc also spends a lot of time in the economic weeds chronicling Frank’s tenure on the House Financial Services Committee (including as chairman from 2007 to 2010) and his role in reforming financial institutions that culminated in the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010. In a pretty remarkable sign of bipartisanship that seems to have disappeared from Washington, Frank’s successor as chairman, Alabama Republican Congressman Spencer Bachus, was at the Tribeca after-party for the film to say some kind words about his friend and colleague. Compared to that, the noisy bickering on the cable news channels each night looks childish indeed. Is it any wonder this gifted statesman has retired to long-denied domestic married life?