Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018): Structure Hinders the Touching Remembrance

This is the first documentary I’ve reviewed and it is also one that is solidly good. Seriously, before I get into analyzing this film, go and see it. If you have any attachment to the past and having PBS’s “Mister Rodgers’ Neighborhood” as what you knew growing up, this film is worth it. Before I say anything else, this film is worth checking out for how it explores who Fred Rodgers was. A great documentary is hard to do, and this doesn’t reach the levels of great, good is as good as it gets.

The documentary was directed by Morgan Neville and covers the life of Fred Rogers, focusing on his story as told through the show and his relationship with the people on the show, as well as what lead him to PBS in the first place.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Beginning – The story starts out with how Fred Rodgers wanted to go into Christian Ministry and decided pretty early on that television would be the best way to do this. Before this he studied child psychology to inform his ministry and we learn about the early show he created with his wife before the creation of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

The Psychology of Fred Rodgers – One of the running themes of the show is the exploration of Fred Rodger’s psychology. This is used in the characters on his show as he grew up in an environment that looked down on showing emotion so he used his puppet characters to express his feelings. This became a way for him to actively listen as well as he would use the characters to form connections with the children he’d help on the show. The show expresses this with Daniel Tiger who is the shy part of Mr. Rodger’s psychology. He’s vulnerable and the show expresses that this is the closest we get to seeing the real man, though many characters say he becomes King Friday by the end of his career where he becomes gruffer and focused on his legacy, while still being the Tiger but the Tiger is now the King.

Love – One of the running themes of the documentary is that of love. Fred Rodger’s love of the kids he would visit or who would visit him as part of the show, love of his crew and the relationships he built there and his relationship with his wife. Each of these explores a different aspect of the man as for them he was a friend and sometimes even a surrogate father as his love was so genuine. One of the strongest stories is how Francois Clemens came out of the closet to Mr. Rodgers and ended up adopting him as a surrogate dad, even as he was living closeted for the show to keep it’s funding.

Imagination – The other theme is that of imagination. Mr. Rodgers never goes to the land of Make Believe and because he doesn’t go a whole world is expressed there created from imagination. This is a world with a royal family, living animals and humans who interact with them. Often he would use this world to tackle real world issues like the horrors of Vietnam and death as some of the plots involved characters sending messages of love, that lead to King Friday tearing down the wall he made separating himself from the Kingdom. I have fond memories of the Land of Make Believe. Seeing the work that was put into that magic was inspiring.

The Cons:

Structure – The structure of the documentary doesn’t work. There are times it really lags and some of the sections could have been much smaller while other sections, especially as they related to Fred Rodgers the man, could have been expanded on. In many ways this is a documentary about the show, and I liked that but in focusing so much on the show we miss out more on learning who Fred Rodgers was. How did his ministry inform his relationships? What was his relationship like with the people we’ve met in his old age? How was he like King Friday at the end? These are all questions that never really get answered beyond surface level. This isn’t a deep dive documentary, which would have made it great if it had.

This is a really good documentary that is well worth your time if you grew up watching “Mister Rodgers’ Neighborhood.” In this film you will see the depths of compassion and love this complex man had for humanity, as well as the creative mind that made a show that connected with millions over generations. I’m glad that this gets to be the first documentary I review for the blog. Check it out, if you have the chance.

Final Score: 8.6 / 10

 

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