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Laramie Movie Scope:
Won't You Be My Neighbor?

A Wonderful Story about a Wonderful Man

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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November 12, 2018 – I never watched Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood as a kid (wrong generation) but I cried when when I saw Fred Rogers talk a hard-hearted Congressman out of $20 million in funding for PBS, just by being a super nice, sincere, caring, intelligent, articulate person. That's one of the highlights of this documentary film about the remarkable Mr. Rogers.

The Presbyterian minister who became the most unlikely of all TV stars was a shining example of Christianity, contrasted, in one scene, with one of the worst, Fred Phelps, who, along with others, protested outside Rogers' funeral, condemning him just because Rogers was tolerant of another sinner who worked with him.

Tolerance seems to be in short supply these days. This film makes the argument that there are a lot of people like Fred Rogers out there in the world today. It doesn't seem like it, but it is certainly a pleasant idea. This film follows Rogers from his early days in television (with some flashbacks to his childhood) to his soaring popularity on public television.

Fred Rogers was somehow able to access his inner child and connect with children in a way many people can't. His empathy and sincerity were not affectations. He was the same person off the TV set as he was on camera. One of the more interesting things about this documentary is how it explores Mr. Rogers' personality, and how different elements of his personality are embodied in the puppet characters he voiced in the show, particularly the Daniel Striped Tiger puppet and, later, the King Friday the XIII puppet.

In a scene from one of the first episodes (in 1968) of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, there is a hilarious depiction of a Donald Trump-like character. In the uncannily prescient skit, King Friday opposes change because “we're on top” (and by “we” he means himself) and he wants to build a wall to keep it that way.

The film argues that Rogers grew up in a time when people were not encouraged to share their feelings. He used the Daniel puppet to share his feelings about things. He even used the voices of his puppets at home when he needed to express certain feelings to his own children. He was more comfortable sharing his feelings using these alternate personalities as proxies.

One of the founding principles of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood was that it would explore feelings about loss, pain, joy, tragedy, all the emotional elements of the human condition. He did all this in an unhurried pace and in a gentle way. As one interviewed person said in the film, Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood was the exact opposite of the template most thought was needed to make a successful kids show.

While Mr. Rogers was life affirming, celebrating the uniqueness of each child, he was criticized for this. Conservatives argued this life affirming message coddled children and removed motivations for them to improve themselves and strive for success. Mr. Rogers' supporters argued that critics seemed to be unaware of the complexity of his messages to children.

Indeed, one of the things that comes across in this movie is that Mr. Rogers was a complicated, smart, driven fellow who was not at all as simple and tame as he appears to be on the surface. His calm exterior hid an iron will underneath. We live in a world in which strength is measured in terms of ruthlessness and disregard for others. Mr. Rogers was strong in a selfless, caring and considerate in a way that many now consider a character flaw — weak, even effeminate.

His strength is on full display in the Senate hearing I mentioned above. It is amazing to see the cynicism melting away in the face of Senator John Pastore, who had tired of all the written statements in defense of PBS that had been read to him. Here was a thoughtful man, Pastore found, who genuinely cared about people and who seemed fully willing and capable of making the lives of his viewers better.

The fact that Mr. Rogers is a complicated man, with troubling things in his background that contributed to the man he became, takes nothing at all away from the fact that he was wonderful — a gift to the world. He is the kind of man who makes me want to be a better man myself. This is a wonderful documentary about a wonderful man. It rates an A.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2018 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)

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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]