Saturday, 22 December 2018

Won't You Be My Neighbor? (2018) - Movie Review spent a lot of time reading and watching American content creators, I have heard many a story about the man named Fred Rogers. And as an outsider looking in, his place in nostalgic history always seemed like an anomaly to me. When childhood entertainers like Rolf Harris and Bill Cosby were being exposed as utter human garbage, Mr. Rogers kept coming up as one of the few nostalgic icons that was still good. And not just good, but a kind of good that warmed its way into the hearts of an entire generation.

While Mister Rogers' Neighborhood is a well-worn television staple in the U.S., I over here in Australia never really experienced any of the man’s work. I mean, how good could this guy possibly be? A lifelong Republican, a religious minister who cared about making connections with children… maybe it’s just my cynical side peeking through, but how could this be the background of a man this beloved? Well, through the lens of They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead director Morgan Neville, I got my answer. Holy hell, did I get my answer.

A lot of other reviews online about this film carry the same main headline: This is going to make you cry. Hard. And sure enough, in record time, I found myself choking on my sobs watching Fred at work. Having never really watched him at length prior to this, it felt strange that I felt like I had just witnessed a time-displaced kindred spirit, seeing the hows and whys he got into television in the first place.

He basically treated the medium in the same way I approach most family films in these reviews: Is this worth watching? Is this teaching something worth learning? As a first encounter with the Neighborhood, watching him turn such tough-to-stomach real-world issues into something digestible for kids is astounding, and it shows that his philosophy regarding children’s entertainment is tried and tested.

It portrays him as the epitome of Lawful Good, to the point where the phrase "patience of a saint" should really be replaced with "patience of a Rogers", given that is presented as one of the keys to his success: His ability to sit, listen and treat his young audience with respect. Add to that the issues he advocated for on his show, from disability to race to how it is fine to not feel fine, and the landmark speech he gave that saved the Public Broadcasting Service from Nixon’s budget-gouging, and he feels like more myth than man.

And yet, even with a person as revered as Mister Rogers, the film doesn’t try to make him into a saint. Instead, his will and intent are presented as a result of his own darkness, from how he coped with being bedridden as a child to how his use of puppets allowed him to say things he couldn’t otherwise. It presents him as a truly amazing human being, but a human being nonetheless.

The film even ventures into that cynicism I mentioned earlier; the idea that someone this good cannot possibly be legit. It delves into the perplexing idea that, because of his "everyone is special" message, he created a generation of entitled brats. It even addresses some of the urban myths that try to depict him as more of a traditional badass, involving tattoos and being in the Navy. Because apparently, being the hero of many a child and child-at-heart through sheer force of kindness isn’t badass enough.

That ends up being the crux of this whole production: By depicting the legend that is Fred Rogers as human, but good, even including a potentially sticky situation regarding his closeted co-star, it enforces the idea that this level of good isn’t unattainable. We can be this good, and with how much Fred has been heralded over the last several decades, it seems like a lot of people want to and see this as something to aspire to. Even in the face of people who seemingly can’t believe that someone like this is real without some kind of catch. It’s an appeal to humanity that is astoundingly effective, and in keeping with Fred’s own methodology, it’s a lesson worth learning for children of all ages.

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