‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor’ is more than a biography

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Fifty years ago, a very different kind of superhero emerged on a new and unlikely media outlet called PBS. Standing six feet tall and a lean 143 pounds, Fred Rogers struck fear in absolutely nobody. He was a giant of a man in the annals of children’s television. More important, a cultural revolutionary that believed in kindness and human dignity.

Academy Award winning director Morgan Neville (“20 Feet from Stardom”) delivers much more than a traditional biography of this unlikely cultural icon. We are treated to a chronicle of Rogers’ fascinating career from the earliest days of television, but the film’s message is delivered as sincerely, gently and principled as Rogers renowned persona.

In the early days of television, Rogers was disappointed that children’s programming was filled with popguns and pies in the face. He felt a viable alternative to violent cartoons was to provide vulnerable children some understanding and safety. Thinking not all TV personalities needed to wear a funny hat or had to be a clown, kids could be respected for who they were. So, he decided to do something about it.

An ordained Presbyterian minister, Rogers ironically never “preached” at his young audience, but clearly had convictions. He simply communicated one-on-one with millions of children over the airwaves. Inviting them be his neighbor, convincing each child that he or she was a human being with worth and dignity in this world. These were more than words on a script; Rogers was genuinely sincere and serious about his mission.

Rogers believed, “Love is at the root of everything, all learning, all parenting, all relationships; love or the lack of it.” And what we see and hear on the screen is part of who we become. Rogers wrote, directed, produced, composed and starred in his show over its three-decade run. Show producer, Margaret Whitmer, suggested the show featured, “Low production values, simple set, an unlikely star, yet it worked.”

Some of us didn’t grow up in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood but can still very much appreciate the works of this extraordinary television pioneer. Fifteen years after his death, we can better understand his impact on our nation. What seems archaic in today’s Hollywood and political world, Rogers taught that respecting and caring for others was of value and that actual goodness was desirable.

Sadly, those characteristics do not seem very relevant anymore. Cynicism and cruelty too often rule while followers on social media eagerly pile on. While watching this movie, the values seemed so outdated and even unwelcome in today’s world. Then again, maybe Rogers’ message is even more relevant and even more radical than ever.

This story is effective and affective as well as moving and insightful. Rogers suggested that being gentle in the world should not be viewed as a weakness. Rogers’ unique style made him an easy target for comedians and pundits, who sadly charged Rogers with poisoning an entire generation with empty self-esteem and a sense of entitlement.

Neville’s film does justice to the life, legacy and spirit of this meek, mild and powerful television superstar in what should win best documentary of this year. As noted, the TV show had a slow pace, but no wasted space. Rogers respected his TV kids enough to present serious topics of death, divorce, loss and even 911.

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor” is 94 minutes and rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and language. If you miss this profound biography at the theater, it will be must-see TV, tentatively scheduled on PBS for 2019. Rogers was a lifelong Republican, but his message of civility, gentleness and respect for his neighbor transcends politics.

Biographies typically dig for the dirt on their subject, but there wasn’t much here to find. Apparently, this guy and his sweaters were the real deal. In fact, the compilation of footage shows him even more admirable than remembered. Rogers once said, “The greatest evil is those who make you feel less than what you are.” Interesting that “A little kindness makes a world of difference” now makes him sound like a subversive radical.

Ron’s Rating: A
Leigh’s Rating: B

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Ron & Leigh Martel