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"WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?"
(2018) (Documentary) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Documentary: A look at Fred Rogers and his work on his long-running children's TV show "Mister Rogers Neighborhood."
PLOT:
In this 94-minute documentary, filmmaker Morgan Neville takes a look at Fred Rogers and his three-decade-plus work as host of the various incarnations of the children's TV show "Mister Rogers Neighborhood." Featuring period clips and interviews with Rogers, along with his wife Joanne, cast members such as François Clemmons, and celebrity friends including cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Neville takes a look at the show, the man behind it, and the various social issues the program addressed during its run from 1968 through 2001.
OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10
For more than a decade I worked in the U.S. Senate doing TV production work for all 100 members and their staff. While those on either side of the aisle had obvious political differences, and some genuinely didn't like those opposed to their views, beliefs, amendments and bills, the majority of them viewed politics as just a version of sports.

Just like boxers and tennis players could be fierce opponents in the ring and on the court and yet be friends away from that, so could these politicians on the Senate floor and in committee rooms. I know because I saw those on the far right and far left first-hand, joking and palling around when they were off-camera.

After I left, things began to change and from what I've heard from people who still work there there's no off-court camaraderie anymore. Instead, it's nothing but rancor and a well-defined us vs. them mentality that's now spilled out into the masses. Yes, things are ugly out there as people on both sides are sinking ever deeper into their same-minded camps, with social media platforms not helping in the slightest.

Worse yet, many people now view compassion, compromise and simply being nice as bad or weak tendencies and relentlessly and viciously attack those who display any such behaviors. All of which, I imagine, would make Fred Rogers quite sad. But also maybe determined to lead by example in showing that living like that is the honorable, strong and only way to go.

Alas, Mister Rogers -- as Fred was known during his three-decade-plus stint hosting "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" on TV -- died in 2003. His involvement with that show is now the focus on the heart-warming and emotionally moving documentary "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" named after the signature song that Rogers sang in most if not every episode and that implored everyone to get along.

I recall watching the show for a brief while during my early years -- along with "Sesame Street," "The Electric Company," "Captain Kangaroo" and others of their ilk -- but quickly grew up and away from its simple, kinder and gentler programming that I do recall thinking was too childish for me after some time.

Little did I know that Mr. Rogers and those who worked with him on the show were imparting important life lessons about a wide variety of topics, including assassinations, war, race relations in America and more, things not normally associated with children's TV programming.

As presented by documentary filmmaker Morgan Neville in the 94-some minute offering, we learn all about that, how it was very important to the host, along with other fascinating facts and tidbits about the show's content and the man behind it all, including interviews with those who knew him, ranging from his wife Joanne to cast and crew members and even cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

Much of that includes material that proved that, yes, the real-life man was pretty much what we saw on TV (he was an ordained Presbyterian minister, after all, rather than an actor playing a part) and that childhood issues (diseases that left him homebound and thus in need of entertaining himself -- some of which is presented as artsy animated recreations) and parental decrees not to exhibit anger ultimately influenced and shaped parts of the show.

There's also footage and related discussion about him addressing segregated swimming pools by cooling off his feet with singer-turned-actor François Clemmons who played a black police officer in a baby pool, but also informing the performer that he couldn't frequent gay bars anymore and remain on the show. That would normally seem like a bit of a contradiction, but it's presented as more of a practical business decision (as related to public and sponsor opinion) than a moral one (as he later told Clemmons that he loved him -- platonically -- just the way he was).

The highlight (if you don't include a brief clip of Eddie Murphy doing his "Mister Robinson's Neighborhood" spoof from "Saturday Night Live") could very well be when Rogers testified in front of Congress to try to save funding for PBS and used the spoken lyrics from one of the songs to persuade Senator John O. Pastore to change his apparently already set mind on the issue (to the tune of $20 million). It's an amazing thing to watch as simple words said in a soft and non-confrontational manner melt the stern politician and change his mind in little time.

Perhaps this offering will have a similar effect on those who prefer anger and hostility as their first response toward anyone who has differing political views. Then again, as the documentary shows, there were those who protested the man and his work at the time of his death, so maybe it's a lost cause as things have gotten much worse since then and no one has taken on the mantle in his absence. However things ultimately play out, there's no denying the film shows how far kindness and acceptance of others can get both the giver and recipient, and there's a lot to be said for that and for this splendid offering. "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" rates as an 8 out of 10.




Reviewed May 30, 2018 / Posted June 22, 2018


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