WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?
2018, PG-13, 93 mins.
A documentary directed by Morgan Neville
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
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
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.