Wednesday, August 1, 2018


I'll admit it. Won't You Be My Neighbor? left me in a puddle.

Of course, I'd never say anything bad about a film honoring the great Fred Rogers, a fellow who took on the world with nothing but a few puppets and a cozy sweater

But why did it affect me in such a profound way?

Part of it had to do with the ridiculous trailers shown in the theater before the feature. It was almost unbearable - endless noise from the screen, whirling visual effects - as one bad ass after another strutted and primped and flexed and destroyed the enemy. There was Tom Cruise, and Denzel Washington, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, and various others, all mugging for the camera, hanging from skyscrapers, speeding along on motorcycles, cracking sitcom jokes as they stomped their enemies into mulch.

How stupid and empty they all seemed compared to Mr. Rogers, a man whose yearly budget at PBS wouldn't have paid for the unearthly shine on Tom Cruise's front teeth.

Mr Rogers' Neighborhood ran in one form or another from 1963 to 2001, though Rogers had been working in children's television since the antediluvian days of 1953. While others were smashing each other with pies, he kept children spellbound with simple truths and the sort of kindness that can't be faked. For his efforts, he was lampooned by comics and even chastised by critics who blamed him for a generation of spoiled brats.

Though Rogers  appeared to be an educational TV juggernaut, he often worried that the public wasn't absorbing his ideas. Kids, he feared, would simply grow up to be mindless consumers like their parents. A registered Republican and ordained minister, he sometimes felt out of step with his  times. Still, he forged ahead. Love was the answer to most problems, he proclaimed, and you don't have to do anything spectacular in order to be loved. That was his platform, and on that he was unshakeable.

At times he was groundbreaking. When Rogers heard that African Americans weren't being allowed to swim in public pools, he promptly hired a black actor to take part in a scene where they sat together and dipped their feet in a plastic kids' pool. 

At the end of the segment, Rogers even helped his new friend dry his feet with a towel. It looked odd, but it was probably a reference to the bible, where there happens to be an awful lot of foot washing.

This documentary by Morgan Neville - a filmmaker who gets better every year - soars like a balloon on a sunny morning. Most memorable are the scenes that show Rogers working his special magic on people. And it wasn't just children. There's  powerful footage of Rogers speaking before a committee of grouchy politicians who don't want to grant PBS another year of grant money. After Rogers recites the lyrics to one of his songs, a visibly moved senator says quietly, "That's wonderful. I think you just got your money."

It's also interesting to see the reaction of late night TV host Tom Snyder when Rogers gets in close with his tiger puppet. In a gentle voice, Rogers reminds the unctuous Snyder that the part of him that existed as a little boy is still living somewhere inside him. Snyder fidgets; we can't tell if he's about to cry or reach for a drink.

Along the way we meet Rogers' wife, his grown sons, and various people who worked with him. They all appear grateful to have known him, and share stories of his genius, his intuition, his determination. How did the sons of Fred Rogers turn out? They seem like fine gentlemen.

Naturally, many of us remember the way comedians used Rogers as a target. After learning of Rogers' dedication to his cause, we wince at the old routines by Eddie Murphy and Martin Short. We almost wish they hadn't happened.

It's not a total hagiography, though. Neville suggests that Rogers grew a trifle bombastic in his older years, and we also learn of Rogers' one rousing failure: an ill-advised attempt to create a show for adults.

The film's strangest scene - and proof that Rogers neither knew nor cared how he looked on camera - involves his meeting with Koko, the gorilla who learned sign language. It's startling to see the enormous Koko cradling Rogers like a baby.

Even gorillas loved this guy. 

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