London Film Festival 2018 Review: Won't You Be My Neighbor?

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Director: Morgan Neville

PG-13 | 1h 34min | Documentary , Biography | 9 November 2018 (UK)

Playing London Film Festival 2018

RATING: ★★★★☆

Such are the cynical times we live in that it is easy to read the synopsis of Morgan Neville's new documentary about the legendary American public TV children's presenter Fred Rogers, and imagine that this will be a sordid tale of deception and failure. In fact, Neville's entrancing and poignant doc, which works as a great time capsule into the ramshackle world of low -budget American public service television from the 1960s onwards, suggests some people actually aren't too good to be true. Fred Rogers, who for 30-plus years hosted the now- beloved "Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood", really does seem to have been the kind, thoughtful and immensely empathetic showman that he was widely feted as being when he died in 2003.

What is interesting to parse out through Neville's collage of various modern day talking heads and archive footage of Rogers on set and in interviews, is not just how Roger's approach to children was so impactful but how that 'Gap dad' look (bright plain sweaters and high-waisted pants) masked a more cunning and self-aware operator. When it came to the children, Rogers, who defines his goal in one crucial interview as helping children “through some difficult modulations in life”, struck on a one-two punch approach of expressing sincere investment in each child's uniqueness and worth via an idiosyncratic mix of puppets and live action (with all taking place on some charmingly rickety fantasy sets) whilst exploring with shocking frankness social issues like death, loneliness, and even - and this had my jaw drop- the topic of assassination The sight of a Fred Roger's tiger sock puppet asking its female co-host what assassination means ( one show's air date coincided with the murder of Robert Kennedy) is not something I will forget easily. I clearly was missing out when it came to my children's TV, provided by the good old BBC. Rogers was in the emotional literacy game.

As much as Roger's strict Christian upbringing, safe-looking clothes and sturdy haircut made him look like a fusion of an overgrown child and a slightly lost Sunday school teacher, it is hard not to conclude that beyond appearing inoffensive he also might have been carefully exploiting his image so he looked like he was in on the gag. If you can get Saturday Night Live to parody you in a not-too-cruel fashion, you have probably done something right in terms of getting noticed. In front of a Senate Committee that was set to cut public television funds (a danger it is back in again today) Rogers was brilliantly effective despite his goofy demeanour, and is credited with helping save the budget. The guy knew what he had to do to keep his show going.

I could have done with more of a focus on Roger's childhood (there are hints of bullying) and how he reconciled his religion with the explosion of various civil rights movements in the decades following his show's establishment, particularly gay rights. One of his co-stars, a closet homosexual, recalls how Rogers fretted that an out man caught at gay bars would turn away the show's sponsors, and urged him to keep his private life hidden away. Rogers appears to have come around to his friend and co-worker's sexuality eventually, but were there any other areas where Rogers' beliefs jarred with an increasingly permissive culture? How did he explore such topics where he himself felt internally conflicted with his young audiences, and did he want to? And given how strident Rogers appears in interviews about how correct his methods are for opening children's minds up to the complex and often merciless world around them, I found myself wondering if he ever faced any well-argued pushback from educational specialists or parents, especially those who were atheists. To what extent what Rogers just giving a modern gloss to Christianity with his show, as opposed to genuinely trying to drain away the ideology so as to reach a broader audience? Did parents, and the children who later grew up after watching his show, feel bothered by this?

Regardless, Neville makes a solid case about why Rogers' impact remains so great even if the man himself remains partially concealed from us. Rogers seems in no danger any time soon of being torn from that image of red jumper-sporting kindly uncle and all-round symbol of decency. It is no wonder Tom Hanks is playing him in the upcoming biopic; Hanks, like Rogers, unceasingly seems a symbol of a world that we wish still existed. A world when things made sense because people we trusted were there to explain it patiently and with a smile.

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Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.