MF 343 : Summer movie series: Won't You Be My Neighbor (2018)
This week, I revisit my favorite documentary about one of my childhood heroes: Won't You Be My Neighbor (2018) about Mister Fred Rogers. More at www.bemovingforward.com.
Note: the summer movie series will air on Fridays.
It's a beautiful day...
I'll start with a disclaimer. I cannot be objective when it comes to Mister Rogers. His show was part of my childhood DNA and in recent years, I've come to learn more about his work and legacy that has only increased my awe for this individual. So understand there is latent bias inherent in my review of this documentary. That said, I'm going to do my best to explain why this should be on your watch or rewatch list.
Mister Rogers has two prevailing images thanks to social media. He's seen on one extreme as a nice man who wore sweaters, tennis shoes, sang songs, played with puppets and was otherwise a non-controversial figure in entertainment. On the other, he is revered as a saint, a flawless individual that reached some mythical level of human evolution that none of us could ever hope to achieve. One reason you should watch this documentary is that it debunks both stereotypes in a way you won't see coming.
Won't You Be My Neighbor (2018) was directed by Morgan Neville who said in an interview that this should not be seen as a nostalgia play. I disagree. Unless you don't know who Mister Rogers is, there is no way to keep nostalgia out of the viewer experience. The documentary opens with a few notes played on a piano of a tune that is reminiscent of the countless themes Mister Rogers himself performed during the several decade run of his show. The documentary then opens to archive black and white footage of him sitting at the piano. Nostalgia rains from the first minute. However, this documentary isn't just about nostalgia. The brilliance of this work is that it doesn't work against your stroll down memory lane but embraces it. It uses it as a compass to guide us onto a longer walkway towards a deeper understanding of Fred Rogers, his work, and legacy.
The nostalgic center of our brain remembers the show with its simple sets, handmade puppet characters, soft piano music, and the dulcet tones of Mister Rogers' voice. We're easily transported back to the innocence and wonder of childhood. We expect to be reminded of his eponymous television primer that taught us the staple values of sharing, caring, being good neighbors to one another, along with other formative lessons. But what is an unexpected gift is a retrospective of adult themes that Mister Rogers covered during the show’s run, which he presented in accessible and digestible ways to his audience: children. Before watching the documentary, I was not aware that the show covered mature topics like divorce, death, and tragedy. In the 1960s, Mister Rogers didn't shy away from current events such as the killing of RFK. As the country mourned, his was the only children's show that had its fictional characters ask and answer the question "what does assassination mean?" Later, during the height of the civil rights movement, we see Mister Rogers soaking his feet in a wading pool and inviting his friend, Officer Francois Clemmons, played by a gifted black actor and opera singer of the same name to join him. This quiet scene is interspersed with news footage of violent segregationists dumping chemicals in a hotel pool filled with people of color. In showcasing Fred Rogers’ simple act of neighborly love, which was considered illegal in parts of the country at the time, he is revealed as a subtle, albeit powerful figure in the civil rights movement.
Later, during the Nixon administration, we see Fred Rogers testifying before a senate subcommittee headed by Senator Pastore who is gruff, impatient and all but ready to cut funding for public television. Fred Rogers isn't showy or flashy. He doesn't speechify or deliver an eloquent soliloquy on the merits of public television. In fact, you can see he's visibly nervous. Instead, he puts aside his notes and speaks from the heart. He shares what his show is about and even recites a lyric from one of his songs. Then, a remarkable thing happens. The senator is visibly moved. He's almost beside himself like a Dr. Seuss character discovering that he indeed has a heart. That day, Mister Rogers not only saved PBS but secured $20M in funding from a senator who was all but ready to give it the ax. As you watch this unfold, you can’t help but wonder is there anyone today who comes close to Mister Rogers’ ability to disarm through guileless authenticity?
While Mister Rogers' accolades and accomplishments stretch beyond the length of this documentary, we learn that his road was not an easy one. Like all of us, he experiences moments of doubt in his journey; questioning whether he is making a difference. At several points, he is fatigued by the constant uphill battle in stemming the tide of junk programming that floods his target audience. An interesting segment and one of my favorites is when he takes a leave of absence to try his hand at an adult-focused show called "Old Friends, New Friends." The show isn't a success and you feel his frustration at not being able to leave The Neighborhood of Make Believe behind. Juxtapose this with stories from his loyal cast and crew who share insights into the man behind the character and you see a fully realized human with dreams, hopes, frustrations, flaws, and a wicked sense of humor to boot. The myth turns into a man who becomes much more relatable.
Whatever your impressions of Mister Rogers, whatever your preconceived notions, you will have them challenged and changed by this powerful and moving documentary. Nostalgia is fully present but not at the cost of context or substance. If anything, Mister Rogers is elevated before our eyes because of what we learn about him.
To sum, Won't You Be My Neighbor (2018) is very much like revisiting a childhood home many years later only to discover new and insightful revelations. These instill a deeper love that transcends whimsy or nostalgia. By the time the end credits roll with the all too familiar ”It’s such a good feeling…,” you will not only have a very good feeling but a catharsis that will leave you renewed and reborn.
Effective use of different narrative tools, including news footage, archival interviews, interviews with various people from Mister Rogers' life and career, animation.
Beautiful soundtrack which honors the legacy of Mister Rogers: one of the finest film scores of recent years.
Documentary shows the human side of Mister Rogers, including sides we often don't get to see.
The documentary only scratches the surface of Fred Rogers' life as a child and his backstory.
The life and work of Fred Rogers is too grand to be captured in one documentary. I would love to see a second film exploring his life growing up or a longer form docu-series on a platform like HBOMax.
***** (out of five)
Where you can watch Won't You Be My Neighbor (2018)
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Learn more about Mister Rogers
Tom Junod's articles on Mister Rogers:
Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King (****)
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