Watching Friday night’s Showtime documentary about Barney Frank, the rumpled, blustery, and witty former congressman from Massachusetts, it’s extremely tempting to cast a scripted version of his life story. First thoughts to play the lead: Richard Dreyfuss, Paul Giamatti, Jonah Hill, or even Fred Armisen, who emphasized the bluster in his Frank impersonation on “Saturday Night Live.” The actor’s range would need to include the impatience of a brainy and pragmatic politician as well as the pathos of a socially awkward and lonely man.
One reason “Compared to What: The Improbable Journey of Barney Frank” invites thoughts of a scripted treatment is that, however you feel about Frank’s many political passions, which have included financial reform and gay rights, he is a character. He’s the kind of dogged, oddball, gruff, and ultimately lovable achiever around whom TV series (“House”) and movies (“The Imitation Game”) are built. We see Frank at different ages in the film, which premieres at 9 p.m., plowing through marbled hallways in iterations of his black-rimmed glasses, both determined and endearing.
The clinchers: Early in his career, Frank used a campaign poster that read, “Neatness Isn’t Everything,” and he once lived in a basement apartment with plastic trash bags on the windows. Take that, “Columbo.”
Another reason the documentary suggests scripted treatment: The story has a neat heroic arc, as Frank, after decades of feeling lonely and fighting tirelessly for the public good, finally finds a happy private life. Some of the best material in “Compared to What,” which is directed by Sheila Canavan and Michael Chandler, looks at Frank in his latter days in the House and after his retirement. We see him in a comfortable, low-key relationship with Jim Ready, and we see footage from their 2012 wedding, the first gay nuptials by a sitting member of Congress. The service, which appears to have been as lacking in fussiness as the couple, was officiated by then-Governor Deval Patrick, who had Frank and Ready pledge to love each other “on MSNBC or on Fox” and “in Congress or in retirement.” It’s a sweet denouement.
Naturally, the movie has hagiographic leanings. This is a portrait of an accomplished man at the end of his career, and it looks back with admiration. I’m not sure there is any other reason for Canavan and Chandler to have made “Compared to What,” and I’m not sure viewers are expecting anything other than a survey of Frank’s efforts and achievements, told with intelligence and an affectionate nod to Frank’s entertainment value. We see clips of a feisty Frank going up against special prosecutor Kenneth Starr as he fought against the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, and of course we see one of Frank’s most memorable moments, at a town hall meeting in Dartmouth, when a woman called Obamacare “a Nazi policy.” Frank’s response, which went viral: “Ma’am, trying to have a conversation with you would be like arguing with a dining room table.”
Many of the stories will be familiar to longtime followers of Frank and Massachusetts politics. One of the best has Frank telling then-Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, in 1986, that a forthcoming book by conservative former US representative Robert Bauman was going to identify Frank as a gay man. He was going to come out, Frank told O’Neill, which would make him the second openly gay member — but not necessarily the second gay member — after Gerry Studds, also of Massachusetts. An amusing interaction ensued, with O’Neill finally making reference to the fact that Frank had decided to “come out of the room.” (In some urban areas, it must be said, rooms are indeed the size of closets.) Among all of the film’s archival footage, there is a clip of O’Neill calling Frank “a man of thought, concern, and care.”
The film touches on the Stephen Gobie scandal, as it ought to. Two years after Frank had come out, Gobie alleged that Frank had knowingly allowed him to run a prostitution ring out of his home. A charge against Frank began, led by Republican Representative Larry Craig (whose own career fell apart in 2007 when he was arrested for lewd conduct in an airport men’s room). But after a report from the House Ethics Committee, the House voted 408-18 to reprimand but not expel or censure Frank.
The filmmakers emphasize Frank’s adult life, but there are a few notes about his childhood in New Jersey and the way the murder of Emmett Till in 1955 Mississippi mobilized him politically. There are also a few illuminating interviews with Frank’s roommates from his Harvard years, with one admitting he had a crush on Frank. Those interviews attest to the consistency of Frank’s irascible, practical, suffer-no-fools personality.
It is Frank, though, who summarizes himself best of all in the film: “Patience, in my judgment, is not a virtue.”
COMPARED TO WHAT: The Improbable Journey of Barney Frank
On Showtime, Friday, 9-10:30 p.m.
Watch the trailer for “Compared to What”: