Won't You Be My Neighbor? (2018)
SHOULD I SEE IT?
This is the first 5-star movie we have reviewed in 2018.
Beautiful, powerful, and moving in surprisingly profound ways, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? shows us a cultural landscape that seems so distant, and yet not so far away, at the same time.
Even the most hardened cynics will find something to affect them. Mr. Rogers was an iconic character who truly was who he appeared to be on and off camera.
You agree with pundits who are on record as saying that Mr. Rogers, and his program, gave rise to a generation of entitled individuals and that Fred Rogers was an evil man.
If the above statement rings true for you, what’s wrong with you?
You simply refuse to watch universally acclaimed films that make a difference in people’s lives.
I want to tell you that Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a light-hearted, whimsical documentary about the iconic children’s television personality Fred Rogers, a/k/a Mr. Rogers. In the film, we have lots of moments where the dulcet tones of Rogers’ unique voice and conversational approach with the camera take lots of us back to our childhood and what felt like simpler times. We get to revisit the Neighborhood of Make Believe, see behind-the-scenes footage of bloopers and how each episode of “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood” was painstakingly put together.
And it is that movie.
Until you process everything you are seeing and wonder if “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” could even be a successful television property nowadays. As someone says early in the film, and pardon my paraphrasing, “When I think of the world we are in today, I wonder if Fred really made the impact we all thought he did.”
Sigh. That overriding sense of what once was and what may never be again is a cloud which hangs over Neville’s brilliant and powerful look at the creator, producer, and star of a television program that aired for 31 seasons on educational and public television, comprising 912 total episodes.
Fred Rogers was a quiet, observant man, who simply wanted to entertain children through the exciting medium of television. We see Rogers’ first foray into television, “The Children’s Corner”, an unscripted children’s program with collaborator Josie Carey, which served as a centerpiece to a new public television channel in Pittsburgh, which launched in 1953. We see the origins of his puppetry, his use of numerous different voices and songwriting talents. However, after several years, creative differences broke the duo apart.
By the end of the 1960’s, Rogers had found a home for his 15-minute program, “Misterogers’ Neighborhood,” and the first official season of his program consisted of 130 black-and-white episodes in 1968. He would scale back the production schedule a bit, move to color, and by 1971, his program had gained an audience and started to take root in homes across the country.
As Neville lays out the Fred Rogers story, we see, in addition to his wife and children, a wide range of people who knew Rogers both in front of and behind the camera. We learn he was a lifelong Republican, a Presbyterian minister, a student of child development and children’s psychology well into his 20’s. He never wavered from his distinctive vocal cadence, was truly kind and giving to everyone he encountered, and seemed to seldom, if ever get angry, including withstanding a cringe-worthy television interview where late night talk show host Tom Snyder grills him on whether he is “square” or not.
Minutes later of course, he has Snyder almost in tears as he talks to Daniel Tiger, a puppet from Rogers’ program, who his wife Joanne says was the closest representation of the real-life Fred Rogers.
Mr. Rogers believed in the children who watched his program and was never afraid to address fears, worries, and concerns, whether those centered around everyday struggles in growing up, or societal issues and world events, such as racism, intolerance, and tragedies, such as the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger explosion.
It is in these moments where we truly realize the legacy that Mr. Rogers left us is more ambitious and profound than we likely realize. He brought the big, scary world into the confines of our television sets, scaling things down for the young and impressionable to make sense of all the unwieldy concepts and scary things they were hearing from adults around them. He made children look and feel important. He brought youthfulness and inclusiveness into the conversation and gave kids a voice, at a time when the world largely kept kids voiceless.
When you watch Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, it becomes impossible to not think of the world today, living in a social media age where nasty, caustic rhetoric is freely exchanged and hatred populates our daily news and political discourse. It makes you stop and think about how we got here.
One cannot help but wonder if there even is an audience for a man like Fred Rogers in the world today. Would anyone watch his program if it debuted tomorrow?
Perhaps all we need to know comes in the sequence of clips spotlighting an incendiary Wall Street Journal story and segments from “Fox & Friends,” the popular morning show on cable network Fox News, where the hosts blame Mr. Rogers for the proliferation of rampant sensitivity and political correctness they associate with those who grew up watching his program. They even go so far as to call him “evil” and consider him a catalyst to creating an entitlement generation.
And so, perhaps, that says it all.
Maybe for all the good Fred Rogers brought to the world through the mechanisms at his disposal, for being authentic in every sense of the word, and calmly arguing for decency and respect for and to his audience, while radiating kindness and compassion in everything he did, his message simply, tragically, got lost along the way.
CAST & CREW
Documentary Featuring: Fred Rogers (archival footage), Joanne Rogers, Francois Scarborough Clemmons, Yo-Yo Ma, Joe Negri, David Newell.
Director: Morgan Neville
Release Date: June 8, 2018