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-

REVIEW: Best of Enemies

17 08 2015

Best of EnemiesMorgan Neville and Robert Gordon’s “Best of Enemies” invites you to remember a different era, the 1960s.  While one could dub this decade a crisis of authority, as my AP US History textbook did, it certainly had its advantages. At this moment in history, people actually trusted their network news anchors to tell the truth (cough, Brian Williams) and clashing pundits drove ratings by the threat of violence, not its actual exercise (ahem, Bill O’Reilly).

Many of these ills we now associate with television news started in the events Neville and Gordon document: the 1968 debates between conservative pundit William F. Buckley, Jr. and liberal icon Gore Vidal.  These men were not running for president themselves and had only marginal ties to electoral politics.  The flailing network ABC just could not keep up with the juggernauts CBS and NBC, so they resorted to using Buckley and Vidal as a sideshow to get some attention. Their snide side chatter, however, quickly became the center of the conversation.

These two well-spoken gents do more than trade spars and jabs. They stand for more than themselves because they can fully articulate the central tenets of their respective ideological movement’s very essence. And ideology is culture, states one interviewee.  So wonder when the shot heard ’round the world in culture wars took place? Neville and Morgan would have us believe it was on the half-moon stage with Buckley and Vidal.

“Best of Enemies” is at, well, its best when focusing on their butting heads – not the heads doing the butting. Buckley and Vidal are interesting figures in their own right, but they just go better together in the same way that salt and pepper shakers should never be separated. Listening to Buckley and Vidal recalls the kind of academic banter tossed about between professorial colleagues … until, of course, it detours into petty squabbling.

(Their closest modern counterparts are Bill O’Reilly and Jon Stewart, although those two play on such different playing fields that they almost fail to respond adequately to the other.)

And beyond just who is saying these things, “Best of Enemies” also reminds us that what they are saying is worth our attention. The United States still fights the same battles and hashes out versions of the same conversation between Buckley and Vidal. The tensions in the 1960s surrounding the supposed gains of black Americans to the detriment of the white middle class are remarkably similar to the same resentments Donald Trump frequently exploits in his rhetoric around Hispanics.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.  B / 2halfstars

REVIEW: 20 Feet From Stardom

29 07 2013

To call background singers the unsung heroes of the music industry is completely clichéd, but it’s truly the best way to describe the true importance revealed by Morgan Neville’s documentary “20 Feet From Stardom.”  Little did I know that it was the background singer that provided the sound that made “Gimme Shelter” such an indispensable part of Martin Scorsese’s films.  (Sorry, in case you hadn’t figured it out yet, I think primarily in terms of cinema.)

The curtain Neville pulls back on the industry is always interesting, and it often left me smiling while gaping in disbelief.  I never outright disdained disrespected background singers, but I never really considered them an essential portion of the music itself.  Boy, was I wrong; as one of the background singers in the film points out, much of the time we sing along with their lines.

While the cool factor makes “20 Feet From Stardom” an undeniably fun and entertaining watch for everyone who likes music, Neville ultimately settles for simple and breezy.  The documentary was on to something when it explores background singers as a metaphor for the struggle of black females in the American civil rights movement.  That thought, however, goes unfulfilled and underdeveloped.

The film also struggles a bit structurally as it jumps around from background singer to background singer without much logic, making it hard to follow at times.  With the exception of Darlene Love, whose catalog I’ve been poring through on Spotify for the past few days, I left knowing very little about each individual female.  Neville’s insights might have been sharpened had he gone more in-depth on a few women rather than hitting such a broad spectrum of experiences.

But I think my appreciation for the contributions of these background singers grew significantly from watching “20 Feet From Stardom.”  Though these vocalists do not stand front and center, their work is still crucially important to the success of so much music.  B / 2halfstars