You might be focused on some of the major blockbusters to come in a few weeks, and I don’t blame you for it. However, every so often, there’s a documentary that strikes a chord with the general public, becoming more than a mere retelling of events that occurred in the past. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is that film for 2018, and it’ll mostly likely go down as one of my personal favorites of the year when it’s all said and done.
The following review will be spoiler free.
Directed By: Morgan Neville
Including: Fred Rogers, Francois Clemmons, Yo-Yo Ma, Joe Negri, Kailyn Davis, and David Newell
A spiritual man, Fred Rogers became exactly what children needed upon starting his own television show: a voice of compassion. Mr. Rogers preached love and tenderness to all people. His legacy will always live on.
In his own special way, Fred Rogers constantly pushed the boundaries of television and political/cultural dialogue, injecting a little life and kindness in every person he touched, even if he was met with opposition.
From 1968 to 2001, Fred Rogers starred in his own television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood which was aimed at children, nurturing loving connection while having topical discussions.
Rogers was trained and ordained as a minister before starting his show, and he wasn’t very happy with the nature of television and how it addressed children. Naturally, as anyone would, he started working in show business to change what he saw, beginning on a small local station in Pittsburgh on a show entitled The Children’s Corner. It became clear rather quickly that Fred Rogers was meant for more than a few side character bits he performed on the show, and his stardom began to grow. Years later, now on set of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred Rogers was a star all across the country, and he eventually did much more for the world than stand in front of a camera, including procuring millions of dollars for childhood entertainment.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Captures What Made Fred Rogers So Great
In popular culture, there’s a kind of remembrance for Fred Rogers as this saint-like figure that brought so much joy to the world. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? doubles down on this sentiment as dozens of talking heads exclaim, “seriously, he was that nice.”
There’s a difference between lauding an individual for being a great role model and smoothing the edges of their personality, however. While the documentary praises Fred Rogers for being a great man, it isn’t afraid to show some rather unnerving pieces of his personality such as his reluctance to embrace homosexuals. But, eventually, love always won out with Fred. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? dives head first into this idea, showing that — while Fred was a person with just as many fears as anyone else — he always focused on breathing positivity and kindness into every person he came across, especially children who are the most impressionable group of people in our species. That’s how to be a great role model!
This Documentary Earns its Emotion
Be careful when you enter your local theater to see Won’t You Be My Neighbor? — you may have to come up with a number of excuses as to why there are tears running down your face to deflect from the notion that the film made you cry.
Both you and I know it: films will do anything to elicit an emotional response from its audience — even if that means resorting to rather saccharine and unearned means. What sets Won’t You Be My Neighbor? apart from the crowd is that it doesn’t resort to any cinematic tricks to create an emotional response. Archival footage is merely shown without alteration. Director Morgan Neville is clearly looking to create a certain reaction from scene to scene, but, as you see from the talking heads that have tears streaming down their faces, the emotion is real because Fred Rogers was so earnest and caring.
You can see his honesty as Rogers interacts with the children around him. All he wants to do is bring a smile to the faces around him. Rogers saw each child the same way, no matter their appearance or place of origin. That’s powerful stuff.
It Contains a Universal Message of Love and Kindness
You don’t need to think long about the last time you saw two prominent oppositions go at each other’s throats for everyone to see. One of the major drawbacks to today’s connected society is the contentious debate (or, more accurately, verbal brawls) that take place literally every second online and around the world. With prominent figures getting bullied to leave social media, it appears that the nature of discourse will only get worse with time.
The common phrase for any film that holds some semblance of cultural importance is “this is the film we need right now.” You’ve seen this phrase quite a lot recently. Some films are more worthy of it than others.
I want to make this very clear: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is unequivocally the film we need right now. In a divided time, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? urges us all to break down our borders and bring a smile to everyone around us. The film breaks it down to its simplest terms by focusing on Mr. Rogers’ common phrase, “143.” It’s the letter count for each word in one simple, yet powerful phrase: “I love you.”
In the end, it culminates in one of the more beautiful and heartfelt endings in film in 2018, expressing how Fred Rogers’ love for all changed everyone around him. We’d all be a little better if we took up Mr. Rogers’ mantle.
Audiences are constantly looking for films that can bring a smile to their faces. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? works perfectly as that kind of movie. Filled with hope and, above all else, love, the story of Fred Rogers’ public life is one of the most beautiful films of recent memory. It’s deceptively simple, showing how the actions of one brave man touched the lives of millions…and that feeling is still rings true today through his universal messages of kindness and love.
143, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?. 143.
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