NEW YORK — Flying directly in the face of confidence-draining legislative dysfunction and abysmally low congressional approval ratings, the few hundred Tribeca Film Festival fans who joined ex-Rep. Barney Frank for the emotional roller coaster ride of reliving his past came out on the other side laughing, cheering and feeling a whole helluva lot better about our elected officials.
In reality, the new documentary (“Compared to What”) surrounding the retired Massachusetts Democrat’s final year in Congress covers all the bases — the meteoric rise to power, career-threatening scandals and hard-won happy ending — of a soapy political drama.
Many of the folks who converged on the School of Visual Arts Theatre on Sunday here in Chelsea didn’t make the trip to gawk at the skeletons in Frank’s closet or revel in partisan warfare.
If anything, several attendees came searching for a glimpse into what makes the once and future comeback king of Capitol Hill tick.
“I want to know more about him,” Carmen Hendershott, a self-described liberal, said of her sudden interest in the retired pol. “I’m aware that Barney Frank is a stand-up, liberal politician. And I came here two hours early to get a seat.”
The 40-year-plus resident of New York City hinted that she was “just getting into him,” but liked what she’d seen and heard so far.
“I think that in these times what people really want is to have hope,” Hendershott suggested. “Because things are so bad that if you find somebody who has integrity and who has stood up for things that needed to be defended, it makes you hope that perhaps others will. Or that perhaps the small things that you do can make a difference.”
“People still keep fighting. But, of course, with Citizens United you get Republicans burying any worthy candidate in a sea of money for the opponent. And you can’t have a democracy that way,” she argued, laying the blame for our alarmingly fractured political system squarely at the feet of the Supreme Court of the United States. Nobody’s Fool The title of the film, one comes to learn, was inspired by a wry routine the late Henny Youngman used to deliver that struck Frank as particularly profound.
“How’s your wife? Compared to what?” Youngman would reflexively bark in his rapid-fire style.
Filmmakers Sheila Canavan and Michael Chandler wisely capitalize on Frank’s sense of humor, layering the film with clips of the artful jabs and verbal TKOs the rhetorical brawler has rained upon unwitting opponents over the years.
The applause bait that worked best on the Tribeca crowd included:
- Vintage campaign ads showing Frank being, well, frank
- Frank savaging conservative pundit Bill Kristol during a debate on immigration policy
- Frank ridiculing California Republican Duncan Hunter’s legislative logic
- Frank railing against the Defense of Marriage Act on the House floor
- His from-the-dias shredding of Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel who made a name for himself by investigating President Bill Clinton’s extramarital affairs
Not that Frank has in any way slowed down.
“Vote Democratic. We’re not perfect. But they’re nuts,” the elder statesman advised supporters at a 2012 campaign rally for then-House hopeful Joseph P. Kennedy III.
But the movie isn’t all fun and games.
While tracing the trajectory of Frank’s climb from hyper-politically-aware Harvard University student to procedural guru in Congress, the filmmakers tangle with his personal demons as well.
“Being a closeted member of Congress is no way to live,” Frank assured the audience during a post screening Q&A session. Frank shared that he’d spent a majority of his adult life grappling with a “successful career and a private life full of turmoil.”
Sometimes that turmoil was self-inflicted — as was the case when it was discovered that Frank had consorted with a male prostitute during his early years in Washington, D.C. That decades-old dalliance earned Frank a reprimand from his peers, but he soldiered on with his career.
Seeing that dark chapter of his life writ large on the big screen was simply too much to bear for Frank’s spouse, Jim Ready.
“The prostitute stuff, I really think that was irrelevant. They really didn’t need to put that in there,” Ready rebuked the filmmakers once the film was over. “It was embarrassing … and just kind of rude.”
“There’s a lot of things I’d like them to leave out of my movie when that comes out,” co-executive producer Alec Baldwin quickly interjected, seeking to lighten the mood by making light of his own media-related shortcomings.
Canavan defended the decision to dwell on Frank’s historic stumbles as essential, not just to this particular narrative, but the story of us all.
“It’s part of Barney’s character development. Unlike President Clinton, Barney stood up there for six or eight hours answering questions honestly. And he still does,” she said of Frank’s ability to own up to his mistakes. “It says, you know, ‘I screwed up.’ And I think that’s important for kids to hear. And so, if we had left that out of the movie, we would left it out — not just part of Barney’s story but part of America’s story.”
Other times, adversity was thrust upon Frank. As was the case when he claims he was involuntarily outed by disgraced Rep. Robert E. Bauman, who bared his soul (and fellow member’s dirty laundry) in his post-congressional tell-all, “The Gentleman from Maryland: The Conscience of a Gay Conservative.”
The revelation prompted Frank to come clean to then-Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O’Neill Jr., D-Mass., a move many believe quashed Frank’s hopes of ever rising to the upper echelons of the Democratic leadership.
The general public, however, has apparently been much more forgiving.
“You are a tremendous public servant. And you will be missed,” one well-wisher assures Frank as the famously slovenly pol shuffles past in a touching shot.