The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Won't You Be My Neighbor?

There's never been anyone else like Fred Rogers, and boy, did we ever need him. Millions of children (myself included) grew up watching Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Through that show, we learned the value of kindness, compassion, and empathy. What kids' TV programs are devoted to teaching those lessons today? If there even are any, they certainly don't do it with the elegance that Mr. Rogers did. The new documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor? takes a warm look back at the man's life, work, and message.

Director Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom) weaves together clips from Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, revealing behind-the-scenes footage, and interviews with family members, friends, and colleagues who knew the man well. Early scenes detail how this ordained minister developed the show, which was intended to tell children that they are special and loved, just as they are. We hear him discuss his philosophy, which was to imagine that he was talking to just one child when he taped the program. Several interviewees note how remarkable it was for the show to be so slowly-paced, with its genial host taking the time to put on a sweater and change his shoes at the start of every episode.

Later, the focus shifts to illustrate how Rogers slipped in age-appropriate explanations of real-life events. He used his puppets to tell a story that served as a metaphor for the Vietnam War and its related protests. Upon hearing of “white” swimming pools kicking out black people who tried to use them, he created a scene in which he invited an African-American friend to join him in sticking his feet in a plastic pool on a hot summer day. At times, Rogers addressed issues even more directly, doing episodes on political assassinations, divorce, and even death.

In his own archival words, Mister Rogers opines on his desire to help kids make sense of a world that can, at times, be scary to them. There might be no more nobler cause in the history of television. A scholar of both the Bible and modern child-development theories, he came to believe that the messages he sent were precisely what children needed to hear. It is therefore powerful to see unaired footage of him visibly struggling to compose himself when filming a piece about 9/11. How can adults help children feel safe and okay when they don't feel that way themselves?

Won't You Be My Neighbor? offers a lot of substance in detailing Rogers' mission, while also containing a pleasant amount of humor. There are some funny backstage stories related here. Despite the footage of late-night talk show host Tom Snyder asking him point-blank on air if he is “square,” it's obvious that Rogers had a playful streak that belied the super-straight demeanor.

Perhaps the highest compliment that can be paid to this wonderful film is that you feel as though you know Fred Rogers even more personally after viewing it. For a man who dedicated his career to feeling known by his audience, that's quite an accomplishment. Won't You Be My Neighbor? ends by pondering what Mister Rogers would make of the world in 2018 – a time of terrorism, mass shootings, and unparalleled political division among Americans. The answer, of course, is unknowable. What we do know is that he spent decades laying out the blueprint for how to respond.

It's no understatement to say the documentary makes you want to be a better person. Fred Rogers would be proud.

( out of four)

Won't You Be My Neighbor? is rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and language. The running time is 1 hour and 34 minutes.

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