Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★
It is a testament to the documentary’s power that although I have no emotional attachment to Fred Rogers, the host and creator of the beloved “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood,” or his television show, I was fascinated and grew to care for both the man and the series. Director Morgan Neville understands that it is not enough to talk about the subject’s influence or to simply show clips of him behind the scenes or in front of the camera. No, it is imperative to show Mr. Roger’s raw power. It is most appropriate that it happens early in the film: Mr. Rogers looks to the camera—almost through it, really—and addresses the inner child in all of us. I don’t remember the words he used but I remember the way he looked at me, at us. There is an honesty in those eyes, a warmth, a willingness to listen and impart wisdom.
The film is well-paced as it weaves in and out of Rogers’ childhood, his relationship with religion and God, the various stages of his career, and some of the controversies brought up by people who are unable to define or label him. These are punctuated by interviews with Rogers’ family, friends, and former colleagues. But most intriguing are clips of the man relating to another human being: the way he looks at them, touches them, how he carries himself around them. If the film were merely composed of clips involving Rogers simply connecting with others, it would be a fascinating work regardless. The power of the work, you see, is not in words but in thoughts, feelings, and possibilities.
Rogers’ motivation to create a television series for children is compelling. I admired how the picture highlights the trends of programs aimed at kids from the mid- to late-‘60s and onwards. While cartoons, comedies, and variety shows tend to speed up, Rogers decided to use time in his program as a tool to slow down; to breathe; to ponder, consider, and learn. Instead of showing people’s faces getting smacked by pies, he shows how a turtle crawls across a mat. Instead of showing violent cartoons, he employs sock puppets to express deep thoughts and philosophical musings, not at all unlike ideas and questions that children ask about themselves, of people around them, of current events that are unfolding.
Underneath the relaxed nature of the documentary, there is a sense of urgency that juts out from time to time. It implies that since the show’s bow in 2001, there has been a void when it comes to such programming for kids. And it makes for a compelling case. I grew up with Disney, Nickelodeon, and Cartoon Network shows and movies—not one of them offers a high level of insight or courage when it comes to tackling questions or subjects that really matter. I was amazed that “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood” dared to discuss topics such as racism, divorce, death, and even how it feels like to have crippling self-doubt. It made me want to look into the show—entire episodes, not just clips—and see how they are handled. I caught myself thinking that surely there must be an archive of all the episodes because the show is willing to construct a bridge between parent and child so that they are more able to discuss difficult or controversial subjects.
This captivating documentary is about a creative, hardworking, and passionate man who looked at a television and recognized that it could be used as an empathy machine. Look at the way children are so enthralled when Rogers is in the room even without the puppetry. He never looks down on them, he is not afraid to employ multisyllabic words, he goes by the assumption that the children are smart and engaged. His body language is welcoming and upbeat. Children can read nonverbal signals exceedingly well. It is easy to see why Mr. Rogers became a household name for many Americans.
Best of Enemies (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★
In 1968, ABC was consistently placed third in the Nielsen ratings out of the three competing networks. In an attempt to surge past their competitors, ABC decided to invite William F. Buckley, Jr., a conservative, and Gore Vidal, a liberal, both intellectuals already hating each other years prior, and engage in a series of debates, ten in totality, under ABC News’ coverage of the Republican National Convention and the Democratic National Convention, in Miami Beach and Chicago, respectively. Unbeknownst to the third-tier network and the American public, the Buckley-Vidal debates will change and shape the landscape of political punditry.
I must confess that prior to the picture, I knew nothing about Buckley and Vidal. What attracted me to see the documentary is the two figures who did not like each other in the least personally and they had warring political views. These men had to sit across one another and attack using words. The setup reminded me of two men I love to watch debate in something they were passionate about: Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, former film critics and journalists of the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times, respectively. “Best of Enemies,” directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville, is a most entertaining and incisive documentary.
Buckley and Vidal’s mutual antipathy is captured and presented with excitement and clarity. Almost immediately we get the impression that both are highly intelligent, cunning, certainly not the kind of men who back down from a fight even when pushed to a corner. As the camera focuses and moves closer to their faces, one can sense the involuntary ticks pulsating behind their facial muscles and rage welling up in their eyes despite the occasional grayness and mid-to-low picture quality of archival footages.
Because the two-way enmity is so alive, so strong that it is almost tactile, tension runs throughout the veins of the documentary. Drama is created and we are thoroughly engaged as captions denoting debate numbers appear on screen. The moment a debate begins, we anticipate how one might respond to the other as the foundations of that person’s argument are laid out. There are great surprises along the way. Duels tend to take a nasty turn. The ninth debate is a showstopper. The men, in their own ways, have a flair for theatrics. Take note, however, that the topics they cover remain relevant today.
Subjects interviewed to support the material ranges from those who knew about Vidal and Buckley’s published works to those who knew them personally. I found a few of their insights about the political landscape at the time to be illuminating. They have a way of referring to the past and making that particular time so exciting because people seem to be concerned about real and important issues. People either wanted to make a big change or preserve what was there.
Toward the documentary’s conclusion, one of the interviewees makes a great observation about watching television during that time. Since everybody saw the same images, though not everyone had the same opinion, there was a sense of community, a sense of being a nation. People talked about what they saw on TV the next day. Compared to the manner in which we acquire and digest information today, I can agree to some degree that we have lost such positive elements.
“Best of Enemies” offers plenty of amusing and clever vitriolic remarks, but it also works as a lamentation—of one’s dreams of greatness never achieved, of one’s regrets, and of a time that once was. There comes a point in the film where the narration considers Vidal feeling a sense of failure near the end of his career because young people had stopped paying attention to his work or that he had been forgotten completely. Because the film showcases his intellectual prowess, it inspired me to look into his work.