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Review: Won't You Be My Neighbour? (Morgan Neville)

There are television shows, and increasingly so today, whose reach extends beyond a local, or even national audience. Children's programming is built on fairly universal premises, largely shorn of the kind of cultural signifiers that can render some shows inaccessible to international viewers. Yet Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, for many Americans a seminal TV work in their development, never extended its reach outside of its U.S. borders - it was a success in even extending to those borders, and thus surely never felt an impulse to push further. It is thus that I, a non-American, approach Won't You Be My Neighbour? a virgin viewer, for whom whatever nostalgia this title may evoke to others can never extend to me.

I respect Morgan Neville, the documentary director whose output to date has always been clean, sturdy doc filmmaking with an infallible sense of precisely how to communicate a message. Communication skill is one thing; innovation, style and purpose are others, for which Neville's sense is considerably more limited. Alas, I'm the perfect subject on whom Neville can flex his communication skills here, due to my lack of familiarity with Won't You Be My Neighbour?'s central figure, Mr. Rogers. I felt, upon the movie's close, adequately informed and educated, gratefully aware of a blind spot in my cultural knowledge that I had previously been unaware even existed. Neighbour is calm, gentle, inexhaustibly forgiving, and a little bit quaint; to my judgement, it's a perfect reflection of Rogers, including being speckled with the kind of disarming emotional incisiveness that made his show so enduring, once it had already become so popular.

It's a hagiography, then, insofar as I can gauge it, and from my unique position of objectivity yet relative singularity among this movie's audience, that raises some problems. Neighbour goes some way toward rebutting the toxic connotations of Rogers' Republican party membership, though it does so indirectly - for his time, it argues, he was a social progressive, though I've rarely been interested in selective social progression in any time, least of all any time past. Neville and his interviewees forgive Rogers, but not in the spirit of genuine forgiveness - they do so in a spirit of vain amelioration, part of a one-sided beatification process that relies upon their audience's subjective desire to see their beloved Mr. Rogers portrayed in a flattering light. Won't You Be My Neighbour? never even considers prying deeper into its subject's darker sides, pretending instead that the lightness he exuded publically was almost all-consuming, and that it indeed beat that darkness back. Objectively, I can confirm that this is a nonsensical approach to profiling any particular person, and anyway, the point still stands: Mr. Rogers was a Republican. He's not my childhood hero, much as he may have done so many American children so much good. He's a dead Republican whose life's work had no positive impact on me. To that end, then, neither has Morgan Neville's.

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