Won’t You Be My Neighbor? [50 New-Old Movies for the 51st Year #49]

Mid-last year, I turned 50 years old!  And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of my life (thus the “Old-New” terminology), and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #49. 

Spoilers ahead.  

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Directed by Morgan Neville

Release Date:  June 8, 2018 (the day after my birthday!)
My age then:  48 years old

What it is about:  A documentary about the life and work of famed children’s television personality Fred Rogers, centering largely on his philosophy and motivations for producing children-focused TV.

Starring (via archive footage and interviews) Fred Rogers, obviously, plus his sons Jim and John, his wife Joanne, actors François Scarborough Clemmons, David Newell, and Joe Negri, journalist Tom Junod (whose friendship with Rogers is the premise of the drama film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood), cello legend Yo-Yo Ma, and others.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  My wife had seen this one, and loved it. And we ended up talking about it a bit when I watched A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, although that was after I’d already started this year. Basically, I’d heard it was good.

Reality: And yes, yes it was.

Truth be told, I’m not much of a documentary guy. I often don’t feel like I have the patience for them, which I think is no credit on me. So I normally give them a miss. And actually, I wasn’t the biggest fan of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood either when I was a kid. I watched it, for sure, but sort of as a bridge between Sesame Street (which came on before) and The Electric Company (which was on after). But since then I’ve come to appreciate a lot more the way the man lived out his faith. And since this movie came so highly recommended, and because I was doing this year-long movie watching project, I finally sat down to watch this movie. And I’m so glad I did.

Stylistically there is nothing too radical about Won’t You Be My Neighbor? It’s made up of a whole bunch of interviews and a whole bunch of archival footage–both from Fred Rogers’ television show and behind the scenes. It’s edited together in a fairly conventional way, with just a little bit of original animation created to help illustrate some of the emotional concepts. However, it all adds up beautifully to a portrait of man who by all appearances was living out a calling–to show honor to children by acknowledging the legitimacy of their feelings, and by giving them the tools to process the world around them. He did this largely via his television show which ran for an amazing 33 years, impacting multiple generations of children with the basic idea that they had value.

And remarkably, he basically did this by being himself–unhip and uncool, but unhurried and unworried. Indeed, if there is an overriding characteristic that comes through, it is that he was authentic and genuine. The film even reflects on the “big question” that so often is asked about Mr. Rogers, which is whether he Is he truly “for real?”

The answer from everyone is a resounding yes. There’s tremendous integrity in his public persona, with the values that he displayed truly being the values that he lived by. And the unusual fact of that honesty is part of what gives his story such power.

This isn’t to say the film makes him out as unearthly or unrelatable. There are plenty of vulnerabilities on display. But the movie is not tempted to try to scandalize Mr. Rogers in order to make his story compelling. Thus without feeling fake, the whole thing is tremendously inspirational. Some of the most moving moments come from the show itself, such as Rogers’ interaction with young disabled Jeffrey Erlanger, or the way he addressed the terrible topic of “assassination” to help children understand what everyone was talking about when Robert Kennedy was murdered.

On a personal note, there is also something about Fred Rogers that reminds me of my own father. My dad, who passed away a couple of years ago, didn’t have that seeming unlimited patience that Mr. Rogers appeared to display, but he had that same sense unhurried approach to life, as well as a similar sense of decency, faith in God, and quiet generosity. I appreciated being reminded of some of the best parts of my dad, as well as having the chance to “get to know” Mr. Rogers himself a bit better. And in some way, it makes me want to be a bit more like both of them.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? I thought it was great. In additional teaching me and inspiring me, the film also gave me a much greater appreciation for Fred Rogers as an actual performer and creator (and reawakened my affection for Daniel Tiger). It’s one of the best ones I’ve watched in this series, and certainly the most moving.

See here for the Master List.

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