Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

I am not a big consumer of documentary films, but I do try to see those things that interest me. When I first saw the trailer for this movie, I was definitely interested. Most Americans will be familiar with Mr. Rogers even if they were not the audience for the show. Millions of kids have been exposed to his work, and he has been parodied by everyone from Johnny Carson to Eddie Murphy. The trailer evokes a simple and heart-warming approach to the work of a man who for all appearances was genuinely caring about children.

The film has received a lot of hype in the last few weeks. A local entertainment reporter was rapturous in singing it’s praise. I do think it is a fine film about a fascinating subject but be cautious of being oversold. My guess is that people offering reviews for this movie are so starved for something worthy and genuine to write about, that they may heap effusive praise on a very good film, and try to pass it off as a great film.

The work that goes into a documentary includes hundreds of hours of research and digging through archives and editing together various film elements. The Academy Award winning director of this film, Morgan Neville, has done a thorough job of finding interesting material to show us, collaborators and friends of Fred Rogers to speak to, and  just a couple of minor controversies to make the story a bit more compelling. The style of the film however is straight forward, there is nothing particularly innovative about the approach here, most of the audience interest in the film is going to stem from the subject matter and personality of the show we are looking at. The winsome charm of Fred Rogers is the draw for this movie.

We will learn a little bit about his early life, he was a seminary student when he became interested in television for children. He was an ordained minister for the Presbyterian Church, and sure to irritate many of those who would like to politicize everything, he was a lifelong Republican. Everything we see in the film suggests that he was a nice man, who believed love was an important part of a child’s life and tried to make all children feel loved. Some social critics have tried to tie his open support of children to the Millennial phenomena of entitlement. The link there is so capricious that it hardly needs to be responded to. Mr. Rogers view of a child’s need for love stem from biblical concepts not self esteem books. While he was a critic of many children’s programs, his criticism was generic to the tone, themes, violence and “bombardment” of kids as opposed to focusing on particular programs.

The need for a movie about this subject at this time seems to be fertilized by all the rancor and hostility in the world. Again, social advocates may try to make hay out of some of the themes and events covered by the documentary, but the true value is that we see a decent man, doing good in the world. He worked hard and was as unassuming in his real life as he seemed to be on television. Everyone should be able to slow down a little and connect with a man who tried to teach children to love one another and set an example for adults as well. That’s as much endorsement as a movie like this needs. “A little kindness makes a world of difference.”

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