Barney Frank is such a colorful figure, he seems like a natural biographical subject. Yet “Compared to What: The Improbable Journey of Barney Frank” is a little too disjointed to fully do justice to the longtime Massachusetts congressman. From his role in establishing Dodd-Frank financial reform to coming out as a gay man when, as he notes, “Homosexuals were a despised minority,” Frank’s career is punctuated by enough highlights to make this Showtime acquisition well worth watching. That said, in the spirit of the Henny Youngman joke in the title, it doesn’t quite measure up to the best political documentaries.
Produced by, among others, Alec Baldwin, the film clearly benefits from extensive access to its star, up to and including having him wired at his own wedding, the first gay marriage involving a serving member of Congress. When Frank hugs his husband, Jim Ready, there are muffled voices and tears.
Still, there are so many aspects to Frank’s career, that directors Sheila Canavan and Michael Chandler appear pulled in different directions, making this less a cohesive journey than a series of short stopovers. The more prominent elements include Frank’s entry into Congress, serving while “half in and half out,” before being outed as gay in a book. At the time, former House Speaker Tip O’Neill confided to a colleague that Frank was “all done in politics.”
Although reluctant to speak out at first, Frank became a powerful voice for gay rights, despite indignities like being referred to as “Barney fag” by then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey, who insisted the slur was merely a slip of the tongue. (As Frank’s mother notes tartly, nobody ever mixed up her last name in that fashion.)
That portion of Frank’s life alone could have provided the spine of a pretty fair documentary, but “Compared to What” also devotes considerable time to other areas, including the banking legislation Frank championed. The most interesting sequences — even more than the clips of Frank’s blunt and occasionally brilliant verbal jousts with various pundits and peers — reside in the smaller moments, such as his unlikely friendship with Spencer Bachus, a conservative Republican from Alabama.
After more than 30 years in Congress operating both in the majority and minority, Frank confesses that he finally grew weary of the struggle, although he remains active and as outspoken as ever outside the Beltway. While “Compared to What” provides welcome insight into the man, his contributions and how the times gradually changed around him, the filmmakers could have used a clearer road map before embarking on this improbable, scattered, yet mostly entertaining “Journey.”