Reel Dad: A wonderful tribute to Mr. Rogers

For generations of children, the gentleness of Fred Rogers offered televised assurance that everything can be fine, everyone should be confident and ever after may always include happy endings. If the world he created each day was simple to experience, the messages he shared were deeply thought out by a man who believed his mission was to make people believe in the goodness of others.

Where is Mr. Rogers and his neighborhood when we need him?

Thanks to this marvelous documentary from Morgan Neville, Mr. Rogers returns to our lives as if he never left, helping us think, prompting us to believe, and asking us to hope. Without talking down to the audience — something Mr. Rogers never did, no matter the subject — Neville reminds us that helping people believe in their capacity to absorb can be the best way to encourage them to listen. Especially to things people may not want to hear.

With extensive use of clips from Mr. Rogers’ show — that ran on public television from 1968 to 2001 — and interviews with his wife, sons and people associated with the program — Neville captures a man driven by his belief in the potential of television and his conviction that children need the chance to focus on feelings instead of explosions, relationships rather than pratfalls, hope in place of anger. After experimenting with various approaches, he landed on an idea that cynics called simple and children considered essential. From the moment Mr. Rogers first entered his living room singing, then changed into his sweater and welcomed his audience, we felt as if we had been greeted by the kind man next door who would believe in us no matter what happened in our world.

Looking back at Mr. Rogers, through Neville’s precise view, we see this kind man was much more in tune to current events than we may have thought at the time. In 1968, he helped children understand the tragedy of assassination after the death of Robert F. Kennedy; in 1986, he helped the nation make sense of the Challenger explosion. No matter the topic, Mr. Rogers could relate to children because he never treated them as children. While he believed in hearing every voice, he preferred those free to express their beliefs with few filters. Of course, Mr. Rogers could stir his share of controversy and, to Neville’s credit, the film doesn’t skirt such moments even suggesting, at moments, that the man behind the screen may have been challenging and challenged in ways his on-screen persona never suggested.

Neville does pose the question how Mr. Rogers, who died in 2003, might look at what happens in today’s world, especially the disrespect so freely expressed by people in power. Yes, Mr. Rogers would likely find words to comfort, stories to explain, examples to create understanding. And the neighbor we loved would encourage all of us to look for, share and protect what we believe to be good in our world. After all, looking for the goodness in others inspired Mr. Rogers to enter our lives every day. And to wear that sweater.

Thank you, Morgan Neville, for helping us remember how good it can feel to be a part of such a special neighborhood.

Film Nutritional Value: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

  • Content: High. Morgan Neville’s beautifully constructed tribute to Fred Rogers makes us so very glad we knew this man for so many years.
  • Entertainment: High. For those of us who remember Rogers, the film is magical; for those experiencing him for the first time, the film should be fascinating.
  • Message: High. No matter how old we may be, we all have the capacity to work harder to look for the good in every person, every moment, every challenge.
  • Relevance: High. Neville carefully crafts a challenge for us to look at today’s world, and the disrespect we observe, through Mr. Rogers’ eyes.
  • Opportunity for Dialogue: High. You and your children can have a rich conversation of the ways we all look at the neighborhoods we live in and visit.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? runs 1 hour, 33 minutes. It is rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and language. The film is available in theaters. 5 Popcorn Buckets.

Life Itself: Ebert Documentary Touches the Soul

The lovely documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? reminds us how powerful documentary can be to reveal a person’s soul.

Like the best movies to which Roger Ebert would give his iconic “thumbs up”, Life Itself the documentary tribute to the film critic’s life and work — touches the soul with its willingness to candidly explore a man who reaches beyond his accomplishments and challenges to savor his moments to live.

At first, this film by Steve James takes an expected look at a successful career. We see young Ebert in photos from his childhood, hear comments from lifelong friends and recall our first memories of the ultimate movie fan sharing his love for his favorite art form. But James is too savvy a documentarian — and Ebert too rich a subject — for the film to limit its scope to a professional portrait. Within its first minutes we immediately find ourselves in the Ebert world of 2013, a routine defined by medical realities as a man continues to believe, despite his poor health, that his best days are yet to come.

Roger Ebert was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2002. For his next several years, as the disease spread, he changed physically and emotionally from a larger-than-life spirit to a quieter soul who wanted to embrace smaller moments. On the surface, he became barely recognizable as the cancer spread; in his work, he used the limitations of his condition — specifically the loss of his voice — as the inspiration to create a new way to speak through his blog. All that mattered to Ebert was the chance to be heard.

As a story about one man’s fight against a dreaded disease, Life Itself reaches beyond its potential sentimentality to paint a revealing picture of the realities that illness can bring. Never losing hope, and always recognizing the probabilities, Ebert and his brave wife Chaz emerge as loving people who simply want to savor every experience they can share. Like others who face life-threatening situations, they learn that what is difficult for a patient is at least twice as challenging for a caregiver who must balance fear, hope and helplessness. Always a bit shy, certainly more than protective, Chaz comes alive as a woman dedicated to help her husband have one more good day.

James also affectionately reflects on Ebert’s professional partnership with Gene Siskel. Together they inspired millions to talk about movies with their weekly television show starting in 1975, first on PBS and later in syndication. To get a “thumbs up” from Siskel or Ebert — and especially from both — could pave the way for a movie and a movie maker to be seen, noticed and remembered by millions. At the heart of this combative and competitive relationship is a friendship born out of a common love for their work, a difficult-to-express respect for each other and a sincere belief that movies make our world a better place to live.

If Ebert was reviewing Life Itself, he might criticize James for making the hero too likable — as he rarely let himself be swayed by the positive attributes of any character — while he would credit the filmmaker for showing little hesitation to reveal the leading man’s darker days. This daring to be so candid about a man’s life and impending death defines the film’s meaning. That Roger Ebert was a great movie critic becomes incidental in this powerful film.

Life Itself makes us proud to have shared the movies with such a great man. Just as Won’t You Be My Neighbor? makes us so happy we spent time with Mr. Rogers.

Life Itself is Rated R for brief sexual images/nudity and language. The film runs 121 minutes and is on iTunes and other online formats.

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