Documentarians Sheila Canavan and Michael Chandler are still putting the finishing touches on “Compared to What: The Improbable Journey of Barney Frank,” an unflinching look at the life and times of retired Rep. Barney Frank.
The whole world will get a peek into the insights they’ve gleaned from the Massachusetts Democrat — and the handful of congressional colleagues who agreed to weigh in on his illustrious career — when the feature length project debuts April 27 at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.
Canavan told HOH she first met Frank while working on the transition team for then-Boston Mayor Kevin White. As a lowly college student, Canavan recalled spending many long nights (she pulled graveyard shift duty) fielding constituent calls. Frank, who devoted his days to setting up the office of public service, would keep her company after work in order to keep his ear to the ground. The two reconnected a lifetime later, just as the financial crisis that continues battering our shell-shocked economy came to a head.
A veteran of the Federal Reserve Board’s Consumer Advisory Council, Canavan found herself gravitating back toward Frank, who was then serving as chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.
Once the Massachusetts Democrat announced that he would not seek re-election in 2012, Canavan and Chandler knew what they had to do: Shine a light on public service by reflecting on Frank’s legacy.
“We both care very much about Congress and always have,” Canavan said of the impetus to act. The pair expressed disappointment about the dismissive view everyone was taking of Washington — “You can put an equal sign to butt of Jon Stewart’s jokes,” Chandler said of the dismal assessment of the second branch of government — even if they, too, were guilty of selectively tuning out.
“I had not realized how cynical, as a citizen, I had become,” Canavan admitted of her worldview prior to following Frank around for his final year in office.
“They said they wanted to do my last year. Then they expanded it to my whole life … which turned out to be much more of a commitment,” Frank told HOH about his time under their microscope, a period he described as “occasionally invasive, but not much.”
The duo began shooting in April 2012, training their lens on Frank from morning to night in an effort to catch every aspect of his professional and personal dealings.
“It was flattering, mostly,” Frank said of the constant attention — though it became tad overwhelming on the day in 2012 that he wed longtime partner Jim Ready.
Still, Frank swears he didn’t comport himself any differently on camera than he would have off screen. “So I don’t think there’s any surprises,” he said.
He noted, however, that he has not yet seen the final cut of the movie.
The filmmakers, on the other hand, were apparently inspired by some of the things they learned along the way.
“The most surprising thing was seeing just how hard he was working right up until the end,” Chandler said of Frank’s legislative vigor. “And this was the pace, we heard from others, he set throughout.”
Canavan, meanwhile, had her faith in the institution restored by bearing witness to the bipartisan collaboration that goes on behind the scenes on Capitol Hill.
“This is a man who believes so strongly in democracy. And he’s not the only one,” Canavan related after run-ins with House Republicans who appeared passionate about governing.
The film features additional interviews with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., former Rep. Mike Oxley, R-Ohio, former Treasury Secretary Henry “Hank” Paulson and political pundit Norm Ornstein.
According to Canavan, getting additional lawmakers to open up about work-life experiences proved more challenging than prying gems from Frank, if only because sitting pols seem inclined to self-censor rather than openly share.
“I think that there’s a real fear of consequences … that they will say the wrong thing or that it will be taken out of context,” she said of the apprehension they were met with while wandering the halls of Congress.
The film is, of course, designed to reach as wide an audience as possible. “Anybody can watch this film and be informed, interested and entertained,” Chandler estimated.
But he’s most proud that it’s already struck a chord with the 20-somethings that have been privy to test screenings. “They told us, ‘We had no idea that Congress used to work,’” Chandler said. “So it gave them hope.”