"Won't You Be My Neighbor?" (2018) Review
I'm not exaggerating when I say that I spent about half of Won't You Be My Neighbor's runtime with tears in my eyes.
It's worth saying that in recent years, I've become more comfortable crying at movies (just read my Dunkirk review from about a year ago for more on that), but I don't think I've ever cried this much watching a movie in theaters. Some of those tears are from sadness, but most of them are from the sincerity of the documentary's subject, Fred Rogers.
For the uninitiated, Fred Rogers was a minister that created a TV show, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, during the late 1960s. Excluding a multi-year hiatus, the show ran all the way until the year 2000 on PBS, and was a show for young YOUNG children. Fred Rogers completely believed that young children were capable of complex feelings but only lacked the emotional and crystalized intelligence to convey those feelings, and the show treated them as such. Dealing with subjects from assassination in the news to divorce and more, the show is hailed as an all-time classic.
I remember Mister Rogers' death when I was very young and while I can't remember too many individual episodes of the show from when I was growing up, this documentary brought a lot of subconscious feelings to the surface that I didn't even know were there.
The documentary isn't necessarily designed to emotionally destroy the audience, it just kind of does that as an inevitable side effect of examining Fred Rogers. And that's pretty remarkable considering that most of the documentary from a structural standpoint is strictly footage of the show spliced in with interviews. I know that's the basic structure of pretty much all documentaries, but there are barely any extraneous devices here. From his wife, to Francois Clemmons, to Betty Aberlin and beyond, almost all of the major players in the show and Rogers' life are in the documentary.
The only extraneous device in the film (and maybe my only complaint with the film) are a series of animations that depict a cartoon tiger as a sort of avatar to parallel various stages of Fred Rogers' life. I wasn't a huge fan of the animations at first, but the more they show up, the more they work in the grand scheme of the documentary's structure.
There's not a ton to be said about the documentary otherwise. It has a few show-stopping moments like Rogers' famous speech to congress in the early 1970s and other incredible events, but this is as straight-forward as a documentary gets. It just so happens that its about a man whose son jokingly refers to as "the second coming of Christ," and the mere act of getting a group of people together to talk about his life is profoundly powerful statement.
Especially right now.
It's interesting (and mildly horrifying) to be putting up my review of Won't You Be My Neighbor this week. The film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival several months ago, but it hadn't made its way to Michigan until recently, and I was shocked by how cognizant the entire documentary is of the fact that we're living in 2018, a media hellscape that perfectly reflects the cultural hellscape we're finding ourselves in right now. It's strange how the first week of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was a string of episodes where one of its characters, King Friday, puts up border walls because he's an old man that doesn't like change, and the week I'm publishing this, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld Trump's travel ban.
That's just a coincidence of course, but the documentary does ask if Rogers' messages of compassion have actually survived and if he could have even continued to keep his unbreakable demeanor of kindness in the times we live in now. It's the right direction to take the documentary in, and somehow it manages to find an ending that feels uplifting and invigorating as an audience member. It's where the documentary moves from being a straightforward examination of a sincere man's legacy and evolves into something much greater.
There's no doubt in my mind that Won't You Be My Neighbor is one of the best documentaries of the year. We're a little over halfway through the year, but I feel like I can confidently say that not only is this one of the best documentaries of the year, there's a huge chance it will be the best documentary I see this year. Run out and see this while you can.
And maybe, just maybe, think about bringing tissues with you. I don't care who you are, someone in that audience is going to cry, and it just might be you.