Rating: 5/5 Toy Trollies
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” the new documentary about Fred Rogers — host of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” on PBS — is, without question, the best movie of 2018.
You may ask, “how do you know another movie won’t top it? The year’s only a little over halfway over.”
To that, I reply, not only does “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” paint an intimate picture of quite possibly the best television host of all time, but it also represents an essential call for kindness amid the tumultuous political hellscape that is America in 2018. And it’s a perfect film.
Yes, that’s right, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is a perfect film, in my humble opinion. I have not one single problem with it, besides that it ends.
Fred Rogers was a courageous, inspiring individual whose work on television enriched children’s lives. The program spread inclusive messages which resonate with original viewers of the program and new viewers alike.
But, as one interviewee puts it, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” didn’t exactly have high production values. Sock puppets? Really?
In fact, Rogers’ decision to use sock puppets in the program, as well as a methodical, meditative pace throughout, represented a stark contrast from the bombastic, morally demeaning shows that were dominating children’s television in the late 1960s.
In the film, Rogers himself admits he was disgusted that his show was being used to communicate abhorrent ideals to youths, who he thought should be treated with as much respect, honesty and dignity as adults.
Unbeknownst to me before watching “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Rogers actually confronted a lot of big, socially relevant topics in the original program. These included assassination, grief and divorce, topics that one wouldn’t expect to appear in a children’s program. You would never think such sensitive topics would be covered in a show that begins each episode with Rogers singing “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” hanging up his coat and changing his shoes. He was able to communicate these topics, in part, through sock puppets.
But covering those topics in a way a child could understand was only part of the beauty of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” In the documentary, viewers are able to see that Rogers cared deeply about trying to make the world a better place, where people treat both themselves and others with respect.
The film’s director, Morgan Neville, paints Rogers as a complex individual, and a person who should be admired unquestionably.
Rogers himself found he could communicate his ideas best through his art, in this case through his television show. This leads one to wonder if offscreen Rogers was actually similar to his onscreen persona. And, thank goodness, he was. Even so, the film investigates numerous aspects of Rogers many viewers might not have known.
Principally among these are the doubts Rogers faced as the program progressed and national tragedies occurred, as well as whether or not he could keep the show going amid the huge workload required for each episode.
The documentary also delves deeply into the relationships Rogers had with his coworkers on the program, especially the powerful connection Rogers had with François Clemmons, who played the African-American Officer Clemmons on the original program.
The documentary also investigates some of the mixed or negative reactions to Rogers’ ideals, including parodies and backlash to Rogers’ message that “everyone is special,” with some news organizations calling Rogers misguided and dangerous.
The depth of emotions expressed by the interviewees makes it easy to overlook the fact that Neville’s filmmaking techniques aren’t anything audiences haven’t seen before. He uses relatively standard techniques, such as talking heads, interview footage of Rogers, clips from the original program, etc, but really, Rogers should be the star and he most assuredly is.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” has lifted my spirits in the wake of soul-crushing current events and reaffirmed my desire to make a positive difference in society and the world. Amid today’s age of hatred, it’s important for everyone to see this film. You won’t be disappointed, and you’ll have a profoundly emotional experience that won’t be equaled this year.