Won't You Be My Neighbor - Movie Review

Won't You Be My Neighbor - Movie Review

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Won’t You Be My Neighbor – Movie Review

In the slough of summer blockbuster superhero movies, sequels, franchises, and animated films, what a refreshing treat “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” is.  It would be refreshing, even if it wasn’t the needle in the haystack of big, bombastic, boisterous-well you get the picture. Its power is in its simplicity and this simplicity comes from its subject matter, Fred Rogers.

Often parodied, spoofed and derided, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a staple of children’s programming for decades. Who could imagine that a show with such basic production values- the sets and puppets look like they were made five minutes before going to air,-would reach anyone? It was a clear case of substance over style. The Substance being self-acceptance, tolerance, recognizing real feelings, and most importantly love and connection.

Mr. Rogers’ empathy is eerily powerful and it takes on a truly magical quality when it inhabits a sock puppet named Daniel the Tiger. Some of the most moving clips involve Daniel the Tiger chatting with a wide-eyed open faced child whose expression truly embodies the adage: a picture is worth a thousand words.  

Personally, I don’t remember watching Mr. Rogers as a child. Perhaps growing up in a rural area, my television channel selection was limited.  I vaguely remember seeing it as an older child, and not really getting it.  Mr. Rogers’ audience typically skews seven years old or younger.  Given this, I was amazed at some of the topics that were tackled, uniquely with puppet skits and interactions of characters on the show. The fear that media coverage of the Vietnam War brought to children was addressed, as well as the general upheaval of American society in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. The skit involving the king building a wall is especially prophetic today.  

The documentary film market has opened up with the world of streaming, especially Netflix.  This is ultimately a good thing; however, a problem with more documentaries getting made and often quickly is lack of factual research and also lack of focus. Often documentaries feel like a presentation of facts and scenes and emotional moments, but without a general thesis.  Luckily, Won’t You be My Neighbor is directed by Oscar winning director Morgan Neville who is deft at both emotional involvement and thematic cohesion. It’s this combination of “I didn’t know that” and “I suddenly feel like crying” is what makes the film both illuminating and powerful. Yet there are no special tricks used to pull this off. The story telling is traditional; on screen interviews with family members, co-workers and media specialists intercut with clips of the show and other archival footage. Perhaps this could be part of Neville’s plan, that sometimes the simplest things are the most profound, especially if they are truthful.

For more in depth discussion, check out this podcast on NPR, that I particularly like.

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