A film review by Craig J. Koban July 16, 2018

WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? jjjj

2018, PG-13, 93 mins. 

 

A documentary directed by Morgan Neville

There's a moment in the Morgan Neville's brilliant  documentary WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? that brought me as close to tears as any other recent movie. 

A depressed young boy is relaying to Fred Rogers how his cat recently died.  Speaking to the child directly and sincerely through a feline puppet, Rogers displays enormous empathy while consoling the grieving lad.  Within no time, the downtrodden boy eventually smiles. 

It was at this point when I fully realized the astonishing level of fundamental goodness in Rogers, who was, yes, the very same man that hosted the educational TV series MISTER ROGERS' NEIGHBORHOOD for PBS between 1968 and 2001.  Seeing him bring some semblance of joy to that child who just lost his beloved pet shows how this man valued the worth of all children as beings with complex feelings that should never be spoken down to, but rather understood and nurtured. 

And that's why WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? should be mandatory viewing for all. 

At one point in the doc Rogers - with his trademark plainspoken and congenial frankness - states to an interviewer that "Love - or lack of it - is the root of everything."  Coming from anyone else's mouth and that sentiment would have come off as cornball, but Rogers believed that principle with passion in his life.  His professional successes cannot be understated - Presidential Medal of Freedom, a Peabody Award, an inductee into the Television Hall of Fame, 40 honorary degrees - but it was this former Presbyterian minister's triple duties as creator, musical composer and star of MISTER ROGERS' NEIGHBOR and his yearning to touch the lives of children in meaningful ways that was his biggest achievement.  What began so modestly in Pittsburgh in the late 60s ushered in three decades of pioneering children's programming, born out of Rogers' disdain with how TV of his era disrespected children.  Neville's approach for the doc is relatively straightforward and simple, but it mirrors his subject matter rather perfectly.  WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? is an intimate, honest, compelling, and revealing portrait of an uncommonly compassionate soul that served as a mild mannered moral compass for kids for multiple generations.  This man was a saint and a hero, and this film joyously celebrates that. 

 

 

Rogers, rather wisely, knew from the beginning that a steady diet of bombastic cartoon violence and frenetically paced mayhem that kids were being spoon-fed by network TV simply wouldn't do.  The overall modesty of MISTER ROGERS' NEIGHBOR still remains so disarmingly quaint, even to modern eyes.  The production values were incredibly low rent (utilizing crude models, sets, and puppets) and Rogers' affable everyman presence on camera - which featured him tossing on a comfy cardigan and sneakers at the beginning of each episode - was so infectiously warm and inviting.  Yes, the show looked cheap, but the moral fiber and life lessons that Rogers tried to impart of his young viewers were timeless and priceless.  Neville's film features a wonderful cross-section of people that knew Rogers and/or worked with him the most closely in life, including his wife Joanne and their children, not to mention key members of the show's cast and personal, like David "Mr. McFeely" Newell and François "Officer Clemmons" Clemmons, all of whom fondly remember Rogers' limitless patience and unwavering calmness with children to help them understand their place in their world.   

By his own admission, Rogers never talked down to his young viewers, like so many youth oriented programs of yesterday and today do.  He respected children as equals and never felt the need to isolate them from the harsh realities of being a kid in a world that seems to dish up a lot of bleakness and despair.  And Rogers used his program to courageously tackle polarizing hot button issues of the day as a way ahead of his time thinker.  During the height of the Civil Rights movement and segregation, Rogers - in a brilliant bit - allowed the African American Officer Clemmons a chance to cool down by soaking his hot feet in the same wadding pool as him, which was, for all intents and purposes, Rogers' flipping the bird unjust racial injustices of the day.   If that wasn't gutsy enough, Rogers even made valiant attempts to make children understand, for example, what assassination meant in the wake of Robert Kennedy's murder with something as simple as a dialogue between a puppet and a fellow castmate.  The manner that Rogers openly dealt  with issues of war, murder, racial diversity, and the importance of inclusiveness when no other program on the air did is too his esteemed credit.  He was a radical spirit.     

And he cared.  He cared about his program and all of his viewers.  Thoughts of wealth and fame had no apparent value to him.  He cared so much about MISTER ROGERS' NEIGHBOR and the inherent value of PBS educational content that he defended them both in front of Congress in the late 60's when a rather unscrupulous congressman was poised to cut up to $20 million in funding for the network, which would have crippled it and destroyed the show.  Sitting calmly and confidently in front of multiple congressmen (including John Pastore, who at the time had already made up his mind about PBS not being worthy of any financial aid).  In an incredibly emotional moment, Rogers asks if he can recite a song he sings to children on his show to help establish and cement the importance of what he does.  When Rogers is done the initially cantankerous and stone cold Pastore looks visibly moved and matter of factly tells Rogers, "Well, it looks like you just earned $20 million."     

WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? has more rousing and celebratory vignettes, like an instance involving cellist Yo-Yo Ma that describes meeting this truly exceptional man who incomparably inspired him in life as a deeply frightening experience ("He scared the hell out of me!").  There's even some intriguing moments with one of Rogers' sons, who recalls his dad's steadfast devotion to his work that made him larger than life entity in his own household ("It was a little tough having the second Christ as your dad.").  Clemmons recounts a time when Rogers discovered that he frequented gay clubs as a closeted homosexual, which Rogers initially didn't embrace, but would later show more compassion towards him and his basic human dignity.  WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? isn't trying to be a hatchet job or stir up any controversy about its subject, but it does relay Rogers, at times, as a complex man of many parts that was also capable of supreme self doubt.  He was a deeply religious being, but never used his show to sermonize his faith in God.  And even though his mission to reach out to children was unending, he had his share of discomfort during certain moments of his life in terms of how to address certain horrors, like 9/11.  The fact that Rogers made a career as an on screen educator that seemingly had all the answers when, deep down, he didn't makes this doc's coverage of him all the more humanistic and layered. 

I usually hate the descriptor feel good movie, which usually brings thoughts to my mind of deeply manipulative, claptrap enabling melodrama that's void of tact and restraint.  Yet, I'm at a loss for words for how else to adequately describe WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?; it's a supremely crafted feel good movie that more than honestly earns its feel goodness.  Fred Rogers was a good and kind human being.  A bit square?  Sure.  Maybe naively optimistic?  Perhaps.  But when one steps outside to observe the world of today or glances at social media to see how divisive things have so toxically become, WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? reminds viewers that - for nearly a quarter of a century on TV - Rogers was a beacon of hope and compassion as a soft voice of fatherly reason when many kids perhaps lacked a strong paternal presence.  This documentary made me happy.  Joy washed over me while watching it in an awesome wave.  WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? is a fitting reminder to viewers that there was once a man that took to the media to thoroughly enrich people's lives instead of using the forum to aggressively bully and belittle others.   

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