Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Won't You Be My Neighbor? Review
(3.5 STARS)

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, from Oscar-winning director Morgan Neville, is something of a safe lob down the middle for the adult movie-going public in 2018. Nostalgia and empathy are two of the strongest emotional pulls when it comes to non-fiction filmmaking. This film has loads of the former. Fred Rogers the man, at least publicly, was defined by the latter. And emphasizing these two qualities—Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood‘s tinkling piano theme in the trailer was enough to kick the waterworks into gear—has paid off to the tune of $20 million in box office to date—already a record when it comes to biographical documentaries.

And while I’ll be the first to say there’s nothing novel about the approach Neville takes to telling Rogers’ and Neighborhood‘s stories, that doesn’t make the film any less vital. Understanding his place in television history is, in fact, understanding television history, and both his life’s message and the way he conveyed it to an audience are inspiring and comforting in a time when villainy trumps most other characteristics.

An ordained Presbyterian minister, Rogers took an unplanned detour early in his adult life away from the church as he ventured to explore the possibilities of television. The Children’s Corner was his first attempt at giving a young audience the programming he thought it deserved—thoughtful, encouraging, and mostly free from slapstick and nonsense. The show played on local Pittsburgh stations for some time, but eventually Rogers stepped away.

His next small-screen project, Neighborhood, began in 1968 and, insanely, kicked off with a week-long storyline about a mad king who wanted to build a wall around his subjects. He’d go on to cover topics as serious and adult as assassination (in the wake of Robert F. Kennedy’s murder), divorce, race relations, and more. He’d also take to task Congress during its attempt to defund PBS and the commercial television industry for trying to turn children into consumers at such an early age and for inappropriately blurring the line between real life and make believe (like what happens when children are injured imitating Superman and other similar heroes).

Neville appears interested in asking whether Rogers would make a difference in our toxic political climate right now. Would he and his messages transcend Trump (whose name is never mentioned) or would he get swallowed up in a world dominated by things like social media? It never really goes for it on that front, however. They’re unanswerable questions, of course, but the “debate” plays out a little like you’d expect Rogers himself to speak to Trumpism—metaphorically, and with lots of love. I found these choices frustrating, but also ballsy and kind of exciting.

The fourth wall is also broken occasionally, which gives certain conversations a little more emotional weight. This is especially true in the film’s final moments, which are extremely moving, and Neville engages directly with subjects as they reflect on Rogers and the men and women in their own lives who helped shape them in similar ways. Again, nothing in the film is especially radical or form-breaking, but the director clearly knows the template well, and he tweaks it just enough to keep it feeling fresh.

But the subject is the reason so many will flock to Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, and those who do shouldn’t be disappointed. It’s nice to spend time with a nice person—someone who takes you so easily back to a simple time when all we needed to be entertained was a song and tiger sock puppet. And the vulnerability that he imbues his characters with sort of drills into you before the tears burst like a new oil well.

As a child, I watched Neighborhood and was unknowingly molded into a thoughtful very young adult. As a fully grown adult, I revisit it and get choked up seeing how it happened and thinking about how thankful I am that Fred Rogers was there.

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