Friday, September 14, 2018

Review: "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" is a touching, sentimental look at the life of Fred Rogers

Won't You Be My Neighbor Review

As a kid growing up in the Midwest, one of my favorite things to watch was "Mr. Rogers Neighborhood." Why wouldn't I? There wasn't anything else like it on TV, except I guess maybe "Sesame Street," which I also watched religiously. But even though I could best compare the two shows, they couldn't have been more different from each other. Now, as a young kid, I didn't really pick up on what Fred Rogers was trying to do. In fact, I hadn't even thought about it until I really went deep into the new documentary about the life and times of Fred Rogers. The reason why Fred Rogers was so beloved was because of he was a damn revolutionary. Television sets in his day were referred to as idiot boxes, but at a young age, Rogers saw something else. He didn't just see faces and hear voices coming out of a box. He saw a tool that could connect us all. He saw a gateway into the minds of people everywhere, and he found a way to teach people and have not just children, but families and communities learning from each other. The best movies, and now in this golden age, the best TV, connects us with the rest of the world. It's safe to say that Fred Rogers was a early pioneer of this ideal.

"Won't You Be My Neighbor" is built like your typical documentary about a person. We get a glimpse of the early life of Fred Rogers. We get a glimpse of how he became interested in puppets. We get a glimpse of his rise in television, and the various struggles that brought to him. While the structure is like most documentaries about people, director Morgan Neville doesn't take the easy road. This is not the typical film about a person. I find rather exhilarating that Neville was able to find a way to make a documentary that does everything we've come to expect from them, but also not at the same time. Its interesting to see what Neville truly focuses on when unraveling who Fred Rogers really was, and sets a context to who Rogers became to be.

Who was Fred Rogers? A man who had originally set out seminary to become a Presbyterian minister. Yet, he was constantly gravitating towards the television set, and what it could offer. Funny, since by and large he seemed to hate TV. He hated because of what it offered children to watch. A constant theme throughout the entire movie. Everything delivered to children was so simple and so slapstick, and it never was willing to challenge children in any form. Rogers grew up in the 1950's and 1960's, when the world of child development really began to change. The way in which Rogers tied child development with his unconditional faith made him the most unexpected social warrior of our time, but then again, that's why we love him. 

I mean, the things Rogers brings up are true. It seems when making entertainment for children, even today, those in charge are working for the lowest common denominator. Everything has to be so silly, and so simple and we are afraid to treat children like human beings. I never really picked up on this watching the original show, but as I watched footage of previous episodes, its crazy how much Rogers treated children like people. You'd never see puppets on a children's show today discussing such things as war or assassination or discrimination, and Rogers dared to break those barriers, determined to further educate the children. He used it as a tool to spread love and tolerance in his messages. He always took his time too, another critical error he saw in young entertainment was over-stimulation. Rogers took his time with everything, from counting a minute to discussing the life cycle of a fish. He understood the importance of just taking a breath.

Also the greatest lesson he taught was liking yourself just the way you are. Never apologizing for it. A big theme that occurs in the film is the constant desire to reveal Fred Rogers' sexual orientation. Was he gay or was he not gay? He was this older man who was a puppeteer and worked with children. So, he's got to be gay, right? One of the several ridiculous, superficial needs to put people in boxes. I cant attest to it too. I spent five years working at a daycare center, and when I'd meet fathers of children, or when I told certain people what I did for a living, the attitude was always the same. Every guy thought they had me figured out. I had to have either been gay or been a child predator or I was just trying to score with my female co-workers. None of this was true of course, I became so comfortable with my teaching craft that I didn't care what anybody thought of what I was doing. That was the greatest thing Rogers could teach. It doesn't matter what bullies think of you, I like you just the way you are. Don't change for people, be the change in your own life.

There is a blissfully touching moment at the end of the film. When the documentarian does an exercise that Rogers used to do with his peers and pupils. He'd ask you take a moment and think of someone who helped you in a special and important moment in your life. The documentarian asks this of all the individuals he interviewed for his movie. Watching everyone take the moment, to really think about what was being ask. It became more of a self-healing meditation than just a cerebral exercise and the release etched on everyone's face was palpable. It broke me down to tears. I thought of important people in my life, and just for a moment, one simple moment, it was enough to of an emotional response that I truly wrestled with it. A quick moment of true concentration and thankfulness can deliver an overwhelming emotional response. As times got darker in the life of Fred Rogers, he forgot to just continue to be genuine. Which is the point of it all.


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