REVIEWS: RBG and Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

4 07 2018

For someone who struggled to get friends jazzed for documentaries a few years ago, it’s been nice to see two non-fiction features doing blockbuster numbers. Two biographical docs, Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s “RBG” along with Morgan Neville’s “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” will gross whopping eight-figure sums. Netflix has certainly helped grease the skids by investing heavily in documentary content of many lengths and formats, but there seems to be something bigger at play here beyond just a small-screen effect.

Subjects Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Fred Rogers are, in many senses, miles apart. Ginsburg is a dyed-in-the-wool liberal who’s used her power to secure major victories for women’s rights, while Rogers was a social conservative and fairly prototypical Reagan Republican. Yet in their respective adulations this summer, I don’t see a blue state-red state divide – in fact, quite the opposite. Granted that one figure is significantly more political than the other, but both stand for something larger than party in a time where seemingly everything is partisan.

These members of the so-called Silent Generation were both crucial in giving voice to the concerns of groups ignored and dismissed by society. Because RBG fought for herself to have a seat at the table in a chauvinistic legal world, both in academia and in practice, she was able to use her power as a litigator and later Supreme Court Justice to fight vigorously for all women to receive an equal opportunity. Mr. Rogers, meanwhile, eschewed the priesthood to evangelize through the medium of television, then a pure entertainment delivery service which no one thought could work as a tool for education. By listening to children and telling them their thoughts and feelings mattered, Rogers inspired a generation of children (including me, who will tear up a little bit every time I hear the jingle).

Ginsburg and Rogers are both inspiring humanists who told women and children, respectively, that they were granted certain rights and dignities just by being themselves. Both believed so fervently in their causes and were so unwavering in their convictions that they inspired loyalty and friendship from unlikely corners. RBG was a traveling buddy with her ideological opposite on the court, Antonin Scalia, while Mr. Rogers maintained fond relationships with members of the cast and crew whose lifestyles were anathema to his own beliefs.

It’s interesting to consider, however, that while both were ascendant for most of their careers, their respective apexes never seemed to overlap. “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was a perfect program for America in the twentieth century, when a surge in post-war optimism and affluence allowed the country to consider the needs and desires of children. While the show never shied away from tragedy, be it the RFK assassination or the Challenger explosion, the strength of America to stick together and overcome the sadness never felt in doubt.

The violent imagery of the attack on 9/11 shattered that patina of invincibility, and it wore on Mr. Rogers. The most heartbreaking moment of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” comes towards the close when Neville shows behind-the-scenes footage of Rogers shooting PSAs for PBS in the wake of the tragedy. He offers touching, inspiring words, yet the reassurance present in four decades of his show feels totally absent. Had “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” continued into the new millennium, it seems unlikely that the jolly, comforting host would have felt honest.

Ginsburg, on the other hand, hit her stride in the past decade or so as her scathing dissents from the bench went viral. Her refusal to mince words in an era rife with prevarication and equivocation struck a chord with a younger generation. If society already places little value on the opinions of women, it places even less on the opinions of older women. RBG’s refusal to go quietly when she still has so much to say has made her an icon for the social media era. Funny enough, as Cohen and West point out, her outsized persona is at odds with her relatively quiet personality. (In other words, that Kate McKinnon impersonation – which the documentary shows RBG watching for the first time – is not accurate.)

While both “RBG” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” follow standard biographical documentary formats, they manage to overcome staleness by focusing as much on the ideas and virtues animating their subject. We see not just them but who they inspired – and how they did it. These films are both worthy and inspiring testaments to two great Americans.

RBG – B+ / 3stars
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – A-

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One response

5 07 2018
Brittani

Great review! My theater had both of these briefly and I didn’t get the time to see either, unfortunately. But I’m happy they chose to show a doc in the first place, even with inconvenient (for me) show times.

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