Won't You Be My Neighbor? - This Movie Rocks
Dir: Morgan Neville
Starring Mr Rogers
For those not raised in the States at a certain time, Fred Rogers and his Neighborhood night well be unfamiliar. We here at Last Word first became aware of the children’s TV presenter via Eddie Murphy’s brilliant SNL parody, an old Robin Williams routine, and a great Loudon Wainwright song (Hank and Fred – worth checking out.)
If you don’t know who Mr Rogers was, Morgan Neville’s sublime doc will change all that. Fred Rogers was an ordained minister who bypassed the church to use the medium of television to reach the congregation he was most concerned with – children. His programme spoke to the youth of America – on their level and about just about everything. Thus we see him tackling racism and religion by washing his feet alongside a black man in a time of overt segregation, in his first year he did an episode on what “assassination” meant – in light of the death of Robert Kennedy. And so much more. It’s easy to understand why Neville’s original title for his inspiring film was “The Radicle Mr Rogers.”
But as overtly political as this film is – with nods to 9/11 and a very telling relevance to Trump and the world of now, Neville’s portrait of Rogers is also a sensitive look at a man who had a unique understanding of the medium of television and how it could reach – and shape - people.
There are moments here – captured by a remarkable amount of impressively assembled archive – that remain truly moving, perhaps more so when placed in the format of Neville’s context. A scene where a child whose cat recently died talks to Rogers’ alter-ego hand puppet, Daniel the Tiger – and looks only at the tiger and not the puppeteer, who moves in to embrace the puppet and finds a way to deal with his grief, all via a mangy old sock puppet, is remarkably touching and, more than anything, captures and distils the power of what Rogers brought to his TV work over thirty years.
Restricting himself to talking heads that really knew and worked with Fred (immediate family included) and eschewing the easy celebrity quote factor that he could so easily have embraced, Neville has forged a remarkably intimate portrait of a man who really was as nice and decent as he appears. (Thankfully, there are no “Savile moments.”)
This is a captivating, invigorating, emotional, and in many ways strangely political movie in its overall world view. Neville has a great CV, from the Oscar winning 20 Feet From Stardom to the recent Orson Welles doc They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead. But this is his best film. And in many ways, his noblest subject. And that’s saying a lot. On both fronts.
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