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Doc Corner From the Short List - 'Won't You Be My Neighbor'

By Glenn Dunks

Now that the 15-wide documentary short list has been announced, we're going to be looking at some of the titles we've missed throughout the year (primarily due to access issues - this particular column is written from Australia) in the lead up to our top ten documentary list and more Oscar talk in the new year. Up first, the crowned champion of 2018's doc class: Won't You Be My Neighbor?.

Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor? has proven to be one of the hardest films I’ve had to write about all year. It’s not a film that throws up thorny issues that demand one’s full attention or a documentary that challenges the mind. Instead, it’s the documentary that America has embraced to the tune of some $23-million box office and the title of the 12th most successful documentary ever made (!) It’s a film that people have taken to their heart and yet I sat here with my Word documentary open on a blank page for far too long...

What about this movie failed to inspire me in any way good or bad? Is Neville’s film my own personal answer to the long-quipped mystery of “can you ever just be whelmed?” (yes, but it turns out not just in Europe).

I came to the film late; the legacy of Fred Rogers not having travelled over the Pacific to Australian television sets meant little local audience for Neville’s aw shucks brand of childhood nostalgia. Growing up over here meant the dolls and triangular-shaped windows of Playschool were our gateway to childhood wonder. Watching Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, though, it is easy to see how Mr Rogers' Neighborhood became such an American institution. Like the best children’s television and cinema, Rogers’ efforts at treating young audiences with respect was refreshing and he had an undeniable knack for recognising that children have a strong perception of the world around them and that their emotions and feelings are complex and often advanced enough to appreciate serious themes. Even a cynic like myself can see the intrinsic value in what he offered multiple generations of American youth. In that, the film does a fine job in detailing his strengths as a performer.

What kept me a distance from the film, what kept me merely whelmed by the Oscar frontrunner, instead was Neville’s direction. The Oscar-winning filmmaker has carved a niche for himself, I suppose, as the man to tell the stories of his generation. But where 20 Feet from Stardom had energy and pizzazz, and Best of Enemies had venom and vinegar, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is so completely and utterly beige in its presentation of Rogers’ life and history. Which is fine, I suppose; he was hardly the most fascinating individual to get the bio-doc treatment this year. But in a year that has given us some truly form-busting, heart-breaking, brilliant works of non-fiction filmmaking, even in the realm of historical biography, I unfortunately can’t get all that excited either way about it. It's not bad by any means, but is it anything more than just good?

The film has made people feel warm and nice and, truly, that is not something to fob off as an unimportant response. These are trying times and nice can be a powerful feeling.

Unfortunately for me, I found myself wondering if there was more to Fred Rogers’ story than the film wanted me to know. Perhaps Marielle Heller’s film about Rogers starring Tom Hanks will give me personally more to latch onto. His story is a curious one, being an ordained minister and all. And for all of his achievements, he probably deserves more than a fairly standard birth-to-death narrative. Was it overly approved by those with a stake in such things? Who can tell, but there are moments that do threaten to go into some more interesting terrain, but which Neville has seemingly little interest in exploring. Numerous sidebars and potential nooks and crevices of Rogers’ life and legacy aren’t so much deliberately glossed over (and certainly not maliciously so)  as treated with a blasé indifference.

I guess you could say the film is as polite as its subject. I guess you could say that can be enough. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a perfectly genteel film, but rarely gets itself out of second gear. When the credits rolled I found that I had no strong thoughts on the film at all. I think I went straight from the movie to my kitchen to prepare a snack like it had gone in one ear and out the other. I’d really like to read the film as a protest to today’s ridiculous standards of celebrity and culture for young audiences, although I feel like that would be reaching (especially since children’s television programming these days can be remarkably sophisticated and progressive). In the end, I don’t think I can deny it. Yes, I was merely whelmed.

Release: Currently on home entertainment everywhere.
Oscar Chances: Extremely likely. It's rare that documentaries that hit the zeitgeist like this miss at least a nomination these days (long gone are the days where hits like Hoop Dreams, Roger and Me or Madonna: Truth or Dare were scuttled from the conversation seemingly because they were so all-consuming for the medium). If it gets nominated then it would no doubt be the odds on favourite to win... and yet, remember Jane last year? There's one title that I think could potentially steal it's throne and we'll look at that next week, but this one has been sucking up a lot of prizes, which suggests its more than just a crowd-pleasing crossover. And this year more than any other, that could mean a lot.

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Reader Comments (12)

This is nostalgia for American audiences. You're a documentary guy so you demand certain things from the medium that the causal viewer who is wholly depended on thematic material to get them to watch one of these things doesn't.

December 19, 2018 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

I grew up with Mr. Rogers, and I agree with your review. I saw it late in its run and was disappointed.

Paddington 2 does warm and nice in a much more innovative way.

December 19, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

I'm way more interested in Minding the Gap and Three Identical Strangers.

December 19, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Minding the Gap is great. (My favorite is Shirkers, though.)

December 19, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne


December 19, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

As someone who grew up watching Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, to me it felt like the documentary was purposely withholding, like it was most crucial for the filmmaker to preserve the pristine legacy of Fred Rogers. Maybe I'm too much of a cynic to believe that the person we saw on TV and in this film was exactly who he appeared to be, but it definitely seems like the doc keeps the audience at arms length so that we don't get too close a warts-and-all view of the man.

December 19, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

Thank you for confirming this. I thought I was the only who felt unmoved by this film.

December 19, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterIan

While as a person who grew up on Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood I was very moved by this film, I find it nearly impossible to review or grade, because it is SO bland as a documentary. There's certainly something to be said for the film taking its form from the tone of its subject, but this on the whole seemed too easy, too obvious, too shallow.

So while I loved it as an experience, I don't think it's all that great AS A DOCUMENTARY.

December 19, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDancin' Dan

Dan's take is great and I agree. I loved it as an experience, but it's not necessarily a good documentary.

THAT SAID... my god, did I need to watch that after all the HORRIBLENESS of the past couple years.

December 19, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRyan T.

I still think "The Silence of Others" is the dark horse in this cathegory, if seen.

Just imagine, there was an unpunished HOLOCAUST in a well known European country and a doc opened your eyes about it. The impact of that revelation alone would almost hand it the Oscar to help the cause become more known.

December 20, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJesus Alonso

You ruined Rotten Tomatoes' perfect score, a**hole!

December 30, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMark

You're a jerk.

February 15, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterEthn

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