Tag Archives: Morgan Neville


Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

by Hope Madden

The world did not deserve Fred Rogers.

A loving and tender soul if ever there was one, Fred Rogers saw children not as future consumers, but as vulnerable human beings who needed to know they had value.

Directed by documentarian Morgan Neville (Oscar winner for his 2013 doc 20 Feet from Stardom), Won’t You Be My Neighbor? trollies into the life of the children’s TV host. What you’ll learn is that, yes, Mr. Rogers was really like that.

What might surprise you, though, is how brave he was in representing the themes and conflicts of current events in the neighborhood. It seems everybody missed that—perhaps because of his gentle delivery, or maybe adults just couldn’t see past the puppets to notice. Rogers wasn’t out to be controversial. But when horrifying images from the Vietnam War, assassinations or terrorism splashed across TV screens, Rogers understood that this would frighten children, and they would need ways to cope that would not likely be there. So he did it himself.

The parallels to today are hard to miss, as is the current need for Rogers’s sincerity and idealism.

Neville mines ample archival reels from programs, interviews and home movies and offsets them nicely with talking head footage. The family exposes a man who struggled at times with exactly the kinds of insecurities and fears he addressed head-on for children on his show: fear of being a fraud, the need to be loved.

Neville’s film does not canonize the man. We see how uncomfortable he was with his SNL-style imitators and how infuriating he found trashy children’s programming.

Meanwhile, experts position him among the great child educators and colleagues see him as a fearless and savvy manipulator of the medium. An ordained pastor, Rogers also utilized his time with children to preach by example.

In one episode, Rogers is cooling himself on a hot day by bathing his feet. A visit from Officer Clemons, an African American character played by Francois Clemmons, prompts Fred to ask him to join. The two men sit blandly enough, side by side, their bare feet chilling in a plastic pool.

At that same time – as Neville points out with news footage – children may also have witnessed a different image on their TV screens: one of a public pool manager tossing bleach into the water to bully a black family into leaving the grounds.

Fred Rogers looked out for children, understanding what frightened us and making every attempt to help us through those “difficult modulations.” It’s tough to make it through the film’s 94 minutes without tearing up, and that’s not entirely from sentimentality. It’s from wondering whether today’s world is simply too cruel and cynical for Mr. Rogers.

World Party

The Music of Strangers

by George Wolf

In the summer of 2000, world renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma assembled a group of celebrated musicians from across the globe “to see what might happen when strangers meet.” Since then, Ma’s Silk Road Project has recorded six albums and performed for over two million people in thirty-three countries.

To say that thrilling music happened is an understatement, but what makes director Morgan Neville’s  documentary on the ensemble strike deeper is how it illustrates the creative joy that can spring from the depths of pain.

Neville, director of the enthralling Best of Enemies and the Oscar-winning 20 Feet from Stardom, keeps his impressive winning streak intact by going inside the ensemble, and finding members committed to a shared vision while still keeping their cultural identities alive.

From revolutions in their home countries, to months away from loved ones, to charges of “cultural tourism,” turmoil often fuels the genius of the Silk Road Project. The Music of Strangers is a life-affirming chronicle of that journey.



War of the Words

The Best of Enemies

by George Wolf
It was the insult heard ’round the world, and it just might have given birth to an entire industry of blowhard political pundits, talking loud and saying nothing.

Which is ironic, because Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr. did neither. Both seasoned intellectuals who proudly sat poles apart on the political spectrum, they came together during the presidential campaign of 1968 for a series of legendary, highly volatile debates.

Best of Enemies, a rich and entertaining documentary from directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville, gets inside the battles and studies their lasting effects on politics, the media and the men themselves.

In ’68, last-place ABC needed a spark for their coverage of both the Republican and Democratic conventions. They turned to Buckley, the conservative hero, and Vidal, the liberal champion, to end each day’s coverage with a spirited tête-à-tête.

“Spirited” was being polite, as the wordplay escalated to name-calling and a shocking (for the times) moment on live TV that Buckley regretted the rest of his life.

No less a TV icon than Dick Cavett sums it up succinctly: “The network nearly shat.”

Regardless of your political leanings, you can’t help but be impressed by what each man brings to the skirmish. Intelligence, wit, biting humor and thinly veiled disgust are all on display, conveyed with such a beautiful command of the language you can’t help but smile in the midst of their blood sport.

The debates, of course, were a ratings winner for ABC, instantly revealing the insatiable American appetite for argument.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Best of Enemies is how little those arguments, and the divisiveness surrounding them, have changed. We have these same debates today, with sides that are just as clearly drawn.

The rulebook? That’s another story.

Best of Enemies lives in a time before you could “ignore the other side and live in your own world.”

If only for 87 minutes, it’s a welcome bit of time travel.