“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
Director Morgan Neville, who previously graced us with the Oscar winning “20 Feet From Stardom” (2013) and “Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal” (2015), has now brought to the screen a penetrating film centering on Fred Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” I saw the trailer five or six times before watching this uplifting movie, and I’ve got to admit that it brought tears to my eyes each time.
Mr. Rogers became a Presbyterian minister before beginning his television show, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” in 1968. Finishing my third year of college at that time, this show didn’t resonate with many of my generation given our focus on school, rock ‘n roll, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. However, Mr. Rogers’ show connected with millions of children and their parents as he focused on themes of love, compassion, caring and forgiveness.
What is most rewarding about Mr. Neville’s film is that it reveals Fred Rogers to be the same person on and off the screen. He genuinely believed that all children were special, and they simply needed to learn that fact in order to live a full, rewarding life. The theater had few dry eyes as you watched the tender, engaging faces of kids as they interacted with Fred during his TV show.
While you will see a part of this scene in the trailer, wait until you watch his interaction with a little boy confined to a wheelchair because of a spinal disorder. This wonderful little lad could only move his hands with great difficulty. You will never see a more powerful moment on screen as you watch the smile on both of their faces.
Mr. Rogers composed most of the music on his show, and it always began with his entrance on stage as he proceeded to change into a cardigan and different shoes. He was living proof that a simple man can become a towering figure by embodying moral principles that we all profess to hold dear.
But what was truly surprising about this heroic figure was that he was able to quietly address penetrating social issues with the children. For example, after the death of Bobby Kennedy, he and his loveable striped tiger puppet Daniel sought to explain the meaning of assassination. While you also saw him explain to children how a marriage could end in divorce, Mr. Rogers was at his daring best as he challenged society’s attempt to enforce segregation at swimming pools at that time. He courageously had an African-American regular who played Officer Clemmons take off his shoes, and the two of them sat with bare feet next to each other in a children’s pool. In the process, many kids learned a lesson from Mr. Rogers that numerous Americans and adult politicians ignored.
Though Mr. Rogers died in 2003, the message delivered in his many shows proves to be just as powerful in 2018 as when he began on a Pittsburgh TV station decades earlier. As he tried to make sure that all children thought they were special with his “Welcome to My Neighborhood” show, we now have a president who was doing just the opposite, separating immigrant children from their parents on our Southern border. Mr. Rogers wanted to welcome all children to his neighborhood, but President Trump wants to do just the opposite if those kids come from Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala or Mexico. This is an inexcusable tragedy that I believe Mr. Rogers would have addressed on his show.
Let me also note a moment in this film when Mr. Rogers testified before a United States Senate subcommittee considering defunding the Public Broadcasting Service and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. After giving a very simple message to a seemingly disinterested Senate chairman, John O. Pastore, Rogers won over Congressional approval by noting that his program helped to encourage children to become happy and productive citizens. If we don’t follow Mr. Rogers’ message concerning the treatment of immigrant families as they attempt to enter our country, we will only help transform these children into angry adults and pay a bitter price down the road.
Fred Rogers’ ability to reach into the hearts and minds of children reminded me of a moment when I taught the 5th grade in 1969 here in Indianapolis, where all of the students were African-American. Given the further fact that I was the only while male teacher in the school, I was stunned one morning when three of my female students entered our classroom crying. When I asked what was wrong, one yelled out, “We hate all white people.” When I learned that a truck full of white bigots yelled racial epithets at them as they crossed the street several blocks from school, I tried to encourage them by saying that there were a lot of stupid white people that I didn’t like.
When one responded angrily, “We still hate white people,” I looked at them and said slowly, “What about me?” Standing in stunned silence for what seemed like a minute, one looked at me and said through tears, “Well, Mr. Hammerle, we hate all white people but you.”
That was my Fred Rogers moment, and like many, I will never forget it.
“The Incredibles 2”
It’s been 14 years since “The Incredibles” was released by director Brad Bird to public acclaim, and the sequel finds a way to build on the earlier momentum. Though it runs off the cinematic rails at times, the film does a far better job enhancing the progress of feminism than the recently released “Ocean’s Eight.”
In a nutshell, Mr. Incredible and his family are forced to live in a cheap motel after the government bans superheroes from fighting crime. In the process, a telecommunications billionaire enlists Elastigirl (voiced by Holly Hunter) to be filmed fighting crime in the hope of getting the government to change its mind.
Problems develop on two fronts that make the film so entertaining. The first deals with the role of Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson) as a stay-at-home dad. He is completely unprepared to take care of his three strong-willed children, and you see him walking around desolate and unshaven as he tries to learn to be both mom and dad to the kids.
Dash, the young boy, lives by the motto that there is no rest for the wicked, while a teenage Violet moans and groans about a boy in school who keeps her at a distance. On top of that, the baby Jack-Jack becomes a handful when he starts to develop superpowers that are beyond his control.
While these family moments leave you constantly laughing, Elastigirl’s attempt to use fame to make progress is derailed by a villain known as Screenslaver. Screenslaver has a hidden trick that allows him (or should I say her) to control a bevy of well-meaning superheroes in a hypnotic fashion that threatens to ruin the reputation of superheroes forever.
Director Bird uses special effects to great advantage, and Mr. Incredible is helped by his old buddy Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) in his attempt to save not only Elastigirl but the fate of civilization itself. Things look bleak at times, which adds to the overall power of the film, and the roles the kids play in the ultimate expected victory had the many children in the theater audience applauding at the movie’s conclusion.•
Robert Hammerle practices criminal law in Indianapolis. When he is not in the courtroom or the office, Bob can likely be found at one of his favorite movie theaters watching and preparing to review the latest films. To read more of his reviews, visit www.bigmouthbobs.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author.