Movie Review: “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” – Big Heart

Written by Jeremiah Greville August 01, 2018

Fred Rogers

It’s been several days since I first sat down to watch the new Mr. Rogers documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, and I can still feel its lingering effects. Like Fred Rogers himself, the documentary is unassuming yet entirely affecting. I can’t remember the last time I cried so much in a theatre. Thank goodness I happened to have some tissues with me at the time. If you go to see it, I definitely recommend bringing some. Due to the nature of the movie this review will be a bit different, and a bit shorter, than usual. There’s plenty to love about this film, but not a lot to critique. So put on your comfy sweater and sneakers, and read on.

(For this review I will be using the American spelling of ‘neighbor’, from the film’s title. Yes, it hurts to type. My apologies to spelling purists.)

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is directed by Morgan Neville. It tells the story of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, a children’s educational program that ran from 1968 to 2001. It’s very likely that you’re already familiar with the show. It’s ubiquity throughout North American culture has been so pronounced that many have taken it for granted. Mr. Rogers was always there, until he wasn’t. Though I was the right age, I confess that I never watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a child. Despite that, this movie won me over. I always knew what the show was, but Won’t You Be My Neighbor? told me what it meant.

“It makes sense to me.”

However, the movie focuses more on Rogers than it does on his show. The central premise seems to be that, yes, in fact, he was that good in person. There are no significant scandals or emotional reveals. No uncovered dirt. Just a good decent man, trying to spread goodness and decency. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? then goes a bit further, and shows why that decency was so important. The movie is rather fascinating in this regard, because it makes its case without ever outright stating it. There’s no preaching or emotional appeal. Nobody ever leans over, looks into the camera and tells the audience to act kinder. The strength of this movie is that they don’t have to.

Wont You Be My Neighbor?

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? follows Rogers from the beginning of his show right up to his death, yet never lingers on personal tragedy. Using the subject matter of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the film delves into Rogers’ motivation and deeply held beliefs on each issue. And then, sure enough, shows the effects of those beliefs when put into practice. The biggest moment comes early on, when Rogers testifies in front of senator John O. Pastore in 1969. It’s a genuinely thrilling moment to see Rogers speak in front of the U.S. Senate on behalf of funding for public broadcasting. The film wisely shows a large portion of his six minute testimony, and Pastore’s immediate approval of funding right after. Though it’s the smaller moments that hold the most weight.

“I suppose it’s an invitation.”

Moments like Rogers sharing a foot bath with Officer Clemmons, a black man, following a terrible real-world instance of racism regarding a pool. Or teaching children about assassination following the death of Robert Kennedy. It’s particularly emotional when Rogers’ own insecurities come into play through the puppets he voices. When one puppet sings about being born a mistake, it’s a powerful thing to watch. And Neville lets these moments linger just as long as they need to. It’s even implied later in the film that Rogers’ childhood obesity—and the cruelty he felt because of it—inspired the man he later became. The trauma is there, but it’s rightly never the focus.

Fred Rogers

However, Neville also never shies away from Rogers’ inherent strangeness. Rogers was an ordained minister, life-long Republican, and children’s entertainer. Often these beliefs found him at odds with himself. When Francois Clemmons, who played Officer Clemmons on the show, came out as gay, Rogers advised him to stay in the closet for fear of losing advertisers. Yet, at Rogers’ funeral in 2003, his support of gay people was so public that anti-gay protesters picketed the event holding hateful signs. Rogers wanted every child to know how important they were just the way they were. In 1969, his testimony to that effect secured the future of public broadcasting. But after his death in 2003, Neville shows how established political commentators cited that very belief as damaging to an entire generation.

“And yet, it worked.”

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is not an overtly political film, but its message is still subversive and timely. In the end, the argument becomes that Rogers’ brand of kindness can and should return. But while that message has felt particularly self-defeating as of late, the movie wisely ends on an incredibly uplifting—and yes, tear-jerking—note. Like an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? teaches us about ourselves. And the lesson comes directly from Fred Rogers himself: that we can be loved, and that we’re capable of loving. It’s a soft rebuke to be sure, but a powerful one. There’s a reason this documentary is currently sitting at 99% on Rotten Tomatoes. If you have the chance, be sure to visit this neighborhood while you can.

My Rating: 8.5/10

Won't You Be My Neighbor? Poster

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About Jeremiah Greville

Jeremiah Greville is a pretty rad beard that's attached itself to a human face. The beard likes movies, television, comic books, and gentle finger rubs. The human likes pizza and sleep. When they work together, they write reviews. Hope you enjoy them!

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