Monday, July 23, 2018

Movie Review: Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? **** / *****
Directed by: Morgan Neville.
I guess I need to admit this right off the top of this review – I never really watched Mr. Rogers as kid. I was, of course, aware of his work, but perhaps because in Canada we had the likes of Mr. Dressup or Fred Penner’s Place – two shows I remember a lot more than Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood – I didn’t watch as much of the latter as so many others did. I will say this though – that didn’t really matter when I finally watched Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor – his excellent documentary about Mister Rogers, and just how radical and important it was – and by implication, how much it is missed today. It is a film designed to make you cry – and unless you’re heartless, it will undeniably succeed – and yet unlike so many films designed the same way, you don’t feel guilty about it when the film is over – you don’t feel angry or manipulated by the film. You cry because you’ve just seen something undeniably good – that has undeniable value – and now it’s gone.
The film does an admirable job of telling the story of Mister Rogers – how the ordained Presbyterian Minister decided to dedicate his life to children’s television, precisely because everything else he saw on TV aimed at children was so loud and crass. A bullied kid (they called him Far Freddie), Mister Rogers always knew that children felt things very deeply, and that needed to be respected by adults – but often was not. The key to the success of the show is that Rogers never talked down to the children – he treated them with respect. His show tackled serious subject matter, and while he would reassure his audience of children – he didn’t sugarcoat things. He would talk about war, about death, about assassinations, about divorce, about racism, about insecurity and anger – and did it in a way that children understood. More than anything, he taught children that no matter what they were special – that they were worthy of being loved, and loving in return. Those who criticized him for ruining generations of kids by telling them all they were “special” are idiots who do not understand what Mister Rogers was doing.
In many wants, Won’t You Be My Neighbor is a simple documentary. The film has interviews with many of Rogers’ family members – who make it clear he wasn’t perfect, and give tiny glimpse into his eccentricities – and those who worked on the show with him for all those years. The overall verdict is basically that what you saw, is what you got – he was that way with everyone. This is backed up by the interviews we see with Rogers, or his testimony in front of the Senate, when they wanted to cut the funding of PBS – and he turned it around simply by reciting the words of one of the songs he sang to children. He believed in his mission – and he was stubborn about it. Like many great artists, he believed his way was the proper way. But unlike many of those great artist we idolize, and make excuses for their terrible behavior – as if they had to act that way in order to produce great art, Mister Rogers made it clear that you didn’t. He may have a little bit of King Friday the XIII in him – but he was kind to everyone.
The film was directed by Morgan Neville, who clearly has an interest in the history of television, and where it led us. His last film was the excellent Best of Enemies, which focused on the debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley at the 1968 conventions. Those debates were legendary and were done by two very smart people. What it led to is a current culture when every TV network puts chattering idiots on TV to yell at each other. Won’t You Be My Neighbor is a little less direct when addressing the present (it’s no accident that Neville does take some time showing us the first week of shows Rogers did – which included the King building a wall to keep others out because he was afraid of change) – and the film doesn’t answer the question of what Mister Rogers would make of today’s climate. Trump is never mentioned in the film, but he hangs over it just the same. As the movie states, it’s less important that we know what Mister Rogers would do today, and more important what you are going to do. If we were all a little bit more like Mister Rogers, then the world would be much better.

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