'Won't You Be My Neighbor' flawed film about a beloved icon

Fred Rogers is limited to one sweet note, rather than a symphony in Won't You Be My Neighbor

Won't You Be My Neighbor, the 2018 film by Morgan Neville has received phenomenal praise from most critics and fans, but as a documentary, it delivers on nostalgia and good feelings but fails when it comes to letting us know more about Fred Rodgers, the man.

Now, doing a documentary about a beloved icon who was one of the most influential people in the last century can't be an easy task, but it seems like this film may have taken the short route and some major questions were never addressed nor flushed out properly. There is something missing in this story.

Fred Rodgers' widow Joanne Rogers and both of his grown sons appear in the film. Perhaps there were some rules regarding which questions could be asked that the audience was not privy to that could explain why there were so many holes in this story.

However, there were no personal stories from his family members nor close friends. None! This absence was noticeable as soon as the ending credits started to roll.

In fact, when the movie was over, I felt cheated.  I didn't learn much more than I already knew about this person whom I will always love.

Morgan Neville's film succeeded in telling part of the Fred Rodgers' story.  It was told with kindness, compassion and respect for this wonderful human being, but maybe it was a bit too reverent?

Yes, Fred Rogers loved and could relate to children in an absolutely non-creepy way, was inclusive, faithful to his religious and political beliefs, enjoyed composing music and lived a good life in Philadelphia and in a summer cottage by the sea, but wasn't there a bit more to him?

Don't get me wrong, there doesn't need to be dirt or a scandal for a story to be good. Many people do live good lives and are exactly what the seem to be, and Fred Rodgers was likely a better human being than most of us, but he was presented as almost godly, rather than a fully-rounded person.

The most annoying aspect of this film was the interviews with his family.  They seemed to deliver perfunctory stories about him.  There was nothing personal added.  His wife never told a cute story of their courtship or marriage and his kids never spoke of anything that would make him seem like a real person.  There were no anecdotes, no special father-son moments, no holiday memories—nothing that connected him personally to people who were actually intimately involved in his life.

It left me feeling rather sad.

Also, perhaps she was ill or unavailable, but why wasn't Betty Aberlin interviewed for this film?

There are a few things that were touched on but never expounded upon such as his political beliefs, being brought up wealthy and being referred to as "fat Fred" as a child.  Especially the absence of more exposition on the latter sad chapter of his life (one that may have helped him want to make sure no child is ever willfully traumatized or marginalized) hurt the film.

In fact, the only area where the film dipped a toe in controversy was on the awkward "was Fred Rogers gay question," and that bit in the film was clumsy and lacked subtly or style.

I kept thinking of Robin Williams throughout watching this movie, and I should admit that his passing is the celebrity death that affected me the most in my life.  I loved that he made us laugh and I will probably grieve his absence until the day I die, but I kept finding parallels between these two beloved men.

They both brought so much joy and happiness and the world will never forget their unique contributions to humanity.

Now to be clear, Robin had some big demons that likely escaped Fred, but they both were externally focused and seemed to be easy men to love from afar, but harder to know in life.

In the HBO documentary Come Inside My Mind, directed by Marina Zenovich, that was released only a few months after Won't You Be My Neighbor, Robin Williams was presented in a much more complete way. After watching, it was possible to feel like we knew more about him than we did before.

 

With Won't You Be My Neighbor, I loved being reminded of the kindness and courage of Fred Rogers.  I needed to revisit the Land Of Make-Believe. I remembered how much I loved Daniel Tiger. I enjoyed being reminded of him testifying before and mesmerizing Congress.  I remembered and was grateful for his calming words following 9/11.

I didn't know about his quiet, but powerful stand for racial and social quality.  I didn't know how gifted he was as a composer.  I loved learning that he found Eddie Murphy's SNL satire "Mister Robertson's Neighborhood" to be funny.

Morgan Neville gave me a good trip down memory lane for those aspects of Mister Rogers life and career.

I just wish he asked more questions and aimed to present a complete feel-good film that featured a man who made the world a better place and actually told us a bit more about the man that has not been said or written elsewhere.

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Michelle Tompkins

Michelle Tompkins is an award-winning media, PR and crisis communications professional with more than ten years experience with coverage in virtually every traditional and new media outlet. She is currently a communications and media strategist and writer, as well as the author of College Prowler: Guidebook for Columbia University. She served as the Media Relations Manager for the Girl Scouts of the USA where she managed all media and talking points, created social media strategy, trained executives and donors and served as the organization’s primary spokesperson, participating in daily interviews with local, regional, and national media outlets. She managed the media for the Let Me Know internet safety and Cyberbullying prevention campaign with Microsoft, as well as Girl Scouts’ centennial Year of the Girl To Get Her There celebration in 2012, which yielded more than 800 million earned media impressions. In addition to her extensive media experience, Michelle worked as a talent agent in Los Angeles, California, as well contracting as a digital content developer and her writing has appeared in newspapers and online. She is passionate about television, theater, classic movies, all things food and in-home entertaining. While she has lived and worked in NYC for more than a decade, she is from suburban Sacramento and gets back there often to watch the San Francisco Giants on TV with her family.

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