Won’t You Be My Neighbor?


The world needs Fred Rogers more than ever.

(2017) Documentary (Focus) Fred Rogers, Joanne Rogers, Robert F. Kennedy, Yo-Yo Ma, Chtista McAuliffe, Joe Negri, Francois Scarborough Clemmons, Elizabeth Seamans, Jeff Erlinger, Tom Snyder, Margy Whitmer, Kailyn Davis, David Newell, McColm Cephas Jr. John O. Pastore, Betty Aberlin, Koko. Directed by Morgan Neville

Entire generations of kids grew up with Fred Rogers, whose PBS television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a mainstay in many households across the country. Rogers himself was an unlikely TV star; soft-spoken, a little bit corny and prone to using silence on his show to allow kids to digest things, he took the conventions of frenetic-paced kids television of the day (the same conventions that remain today) and turned them upside down and inside out. For this he became a beloved figure. Few celebrities have ever been able to relate as well to children as he.

An ordained minister, he eschewed the cloth to utilize the fairly new medium of television in order to spread his gospel of talking to children as equals rather than talking down to them, to listening to what they have to say instead of dismissing it out of hand. He wanted to teach children the virtues of kindness and generosity. He wanted them to know that every one of them are unique and special.

Of course, in later years Fox News seized on this and blamed Rogers for the entitlement of Millennials. As usual, Fox News got it wrong; what he was getting across was that every child is unique and has something different to offer. Some kids are fast runners, some great singers, others are just good at giving hugs. Everything is valid. Of course, Fox News and their ilk have succeeded in getting across that a person’s value can only be measured in dollars and cents. It’s that ridiculous and heartless idea that only people who are gainfully employed in “serious” jobs are successes in life.

The format of the documentary isn’t particularly earth-shattering; it’s essentially what most modern documentaries do; archival footage, talking head interviews and animated sequences (of Daniel Tiger in this case) mixed together. Neville, an Oscar winner for Twenty Feet from Stardom, mixes the elements together in a roughly chronological order and with a wealth of video from Rogers’ show as well as contemporary and archival interviews with Rogers, his family, his colleagues and noted celebrities like Yo-Yo Ma, bring together a picture of the man – who struggled with feelings of inadequacy his entire life – and of the impact of his show, which was clearly considerable.

Rogers helped teach children to deal with real issues, like divorce and death. His show following the assassination of Bobby Kennedy was perhaps his finest moment as kids learned from Daniel Tiger that it’s okay to be sad and to feel bad about someone being assassinated. While Rogers likely wouldn’t have voted for Kennedy (he was a lifelong Republican), he could at least cross party lines and help heal those hurting following a national tragedy. I wonder if any modern Republicans or Democrats could do that today.

In fact, given the recent news of children at the border being forcibly taken away from their parents, one wonders what Fred Rogers would have thought about that? I can only imagine but I have no doubt in my mind his soft voice would be among the loudest in demanding that the practice be discontinued immediately and that the children separated from their parents be returned to them without delay. His wife Joanne, talking about the political division that exists in this country nowadays, asserts that while Fred would have been disappointed in it, he would be at the same time on the front lines trying to heal those divisions rather than complaining about it. He certainly would not give up hope. To me, that’s why America needed Fred Rogers then and why we need him more than ever no and indeed, the world needs men like him always.

If you’re looking for a documentary that gives you a warm feeling of nostalgia, this one delivers. If you’re looking for one that gives you a sense of hope and well-being, this one delivers. If you’re looking for a film that will make you want to be a better person, this one delivers. I hope that we all continue to learn from Fred Rogers the lessons he taught so gently yet effectively. Every neighborhood would benefit.

REASONS TO GO: This is the rare documentary that makes you feel good exiting the theater. It’s a very informative film about Fred Rogers and his TV show. The life lessons taught here continue to be valid.
REASONS TO STAY: The structure of the documentary isn’t particularly remarkable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is perfectly suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The various puppets used on the show were based on people Rogers knew or in the case of Daniel Tiger, on Rogers himself.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Am Big Bird: The Carrol Spinney Story
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Annihilation

Advertisements

Radio


Cuba Gooding Jr. turns it on.

Cuba Gooding Jr. turns it on.

(2003) Biographical Drama (Revolution) Cuba Gooding Jr., Ed Harris, Debra Winger, Alfre Woodard, S. Epatha Merkerson, Riley Smith, Brent Sexton, Sarah Drew, Chris Mulkey, Patrick Breen, Bill Roberson, Kenneth H. Callender, Michael Harding, Charles Garren, Leslea Fisher. Directed by Michael Tollin

A good cry can be as exhilarating as a good laugh. Any movie that can move viewers to tears, then leave them marveling at the triumph of the human spirit, is the aces.

Harold Jones (Harris) is a successful high school football coach in Anderson, South Carolina. As he enters the 1976 season, his mostly untested young team has a lot of question marks, especially when it comes to character. When the star running back (Smith) and some of his cohorts lock a young man (Gooding) of diminished mental capabilities in a shed after tying him up and terrorizing him, Coach Jones and his assistant, Honeycutt (Sexton) step in and punish the boys.

Gradually, the taciturn Coach befriends the young man, who at first is unresponsive, unable even to tell the coach his name. Because of the quiet man’s attachment to transistor radios, Coach Jones dubs his new friend Radio (his real name turns out to be James Robert Kennedy) and begins an amazing, unusual relationship. Jones takes Radio under his wing, despite the suspicions of his mother (Merkerson) and the misgivings of the school’s principal (Woodard).

Radio blossoms, finally having people in his life who accept him instead of humiliate him. He goes from barely able to mutter more than a word or two at a time to an enthusiastic, talkative person, a regular at athletic practices and at the school itself, where he becomes an unofficial hall monitor and broadcaster. Gradually, he becomes an important part of the community.

But all is not perfect. The football team is not performing to expectations, and some believe that the distractions that Radio brings are to blame, particularly the town’s banker (Mulkey) whose son is the star running back who caused the initial trouble with Radio. His son plays an even crueler joke on Radio which causes the school board in the person of Tucker (Breen) to cast a suspicious eye on the situation. Radio overcomes the adversity, but nobody is prepared for the greatest obstacle of all.

The cast is outstanding, particularly Gooding. At times his expression is so truly vacant it seems that nobody really is home. And he skillfully makes the transition to an open personality, capturing the effusive personality of the real Radio to a “T”. After capturing an Oscar in Jerry Maguire, Gooding had undermined himself with a series of terrible choices (Snow Dogs, Boat Trip et al.), but Radio puts him back on the right track, at least temporarily – he still continues to be plagued with movies that are unworthy of his talents..

Harris is one of the most distinguished actors of our time. He is rarely seen in a role that he doesn’t elevate and I can’t remember him ever giving a bad performance. Here, he is low-key, a Southern gentleman desperately wanting to do the right thing, but reluctant to explain why his relationship with Radio is so important to him. It puts a strain on his relationship with his wife (Winger) and daughter (Drew), but Harris underlies the flawed goodness within the man that makes him believable and real.

Enough can’t be said about Winger. She make movies very infrequently, and that’s a shame. She has a tremendous presence, and here shows particular restraint in a thankless role that isn’t developed terribly well (she is seen reading Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique early on, but her character is hardly a feminist here), but Winger carries it off well. I hope she can find the time to return to the big screen more regularly but it really hasn’t happened up to now.

Director Michael Tollin captures the importance of high school football in a small Southern town, and sums it up neatly in a speech Harris gives hear the end of the film: “There’s nothing better than looking for a win on a Friday night, and waking up on Saturday morning after you found one.” He wisely concentrates on the relationship between Jones and Radio, how it develops and why. He cast Gooding and Harris well; the two work well off each other, and in one of the most gripping scenes of the movie — when a distraught Radio is kneeling in the center of his room, inconsolable, the taciturn football coach, never a demonstrative man, opens up and comforts him. The charm of Radio is that he treats everyone he meets with joy and love, as Coach Jones explains, “He treats all of us the way we wish we could treat half of us.”

Be warned; this is the kind of movie that doesn’t just elicit a sniffle; it’s a full-on, tears-streaming-down-the-face weepy that leaves viewers feeling awesome when the lights come back up. The real Radio continues to be a presence at T.L. Hanna High, where he can be found regularly during the football season leading the Yellow Jackets onto the field and joining the cheerleaders when the spirit moves him. He’s as important to Anderson as the air they breathe, and one can only feel good that the rest of us get to share him. Feel-good movies aren’t always my cup of tea, but as manipulative as this one sometimes get, it certainly worked its magic on this cynic. Don’t forget your hankies.

WHY RENT THIS: Utterly cathartic. Terrific performances from Gooding, Harris and Winger. Captures the mentality of a Southern high school football town.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be a bit too tear-inducing if there is such a thing.  Sometimes a bit formulaic.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are a few bad words scattered here and there. Some of the thematic elements might be a bit too much for smaller children.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The movie was primarily filmed in neighboring Walterboro because the town looked more like the era depicted here. The real Radio and Coach Jones are seen at the end of the movie.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The making-of featurette contains input from some of the real people depicted in the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $53.3M on a $35M production budget; the movie just about broke even.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Molly

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Happy Feet Two