Three very cool documentaries


It’s midsummer and the dog days are upon us. A nice air-conditioned cinema showing an excellent documentary can make that heat much more bearable. 

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” by Morgan Neville, won my heart and mind with its superb and elegant editing and gentle message. It is, of course, an intimate interview with the renowned Mr. Rogers, of television history and acclaim. 

Fred Rogers had studied for the Episcopal priesthood, but then chose to communicate his messages via the then-new medium of visual broadcasting.

I think I met Rogers at the PBS studio in Cambridge or Boston in the late ’50s, when I was a graduate student teaching “French through Pictures,” but I’m not quite sure about that vague memory. I thought then that he was too sentimental for my taste, but this time I fell head over heels for his beautiful and profound influence and spiritual strength. 

The images in the film run the gamut from youthful appearances to late-in-life portraits. We watch Rogers swimming in a pool, middle-aged but agile and graceful. He shows us his closet, full of the iconic sweaters he wore on his show to emphasize his casual approach to children – and their faces and words shine with respect, affection, gratitude and understanding.

There are lots of jokes, but none of the vulgar hectic tone that’s on commercial TV stations, which dread silence, the enemy of the trade.

We meet his wife (and later widow), his children and even his foes, who claim his famous phrase “I like you just as you are” did more harm than good, exaggerating self-esteem and thus weakening the drive and ambition that lead to “success.” 

I loved every minute, each moment, of this remarkable work of art, design and dedication. This thoughtful, provocative movie provides not only a lovely afternoon away from the crowded beach, but also an invitation to rethink the values of the tube: it can be used for diverse voices and viewpoints.

The movie ends, by the way, with the Hebrew phrase “tikkun olam,” and Mr. Rogers translates it into advice and good counsel.  

“Repair the world!” he challenges his audiences.

I also salute “RBG,” with its lively study of the career of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, her past, present and future.  My favorite scenes were eccentric details, like her push-ups, with the guidance of her guru, the contrast of her face and form now with photographs of her college days, her early life with her husband and youngsters, and her ever-changing beauty of mind and personality. 

I don’t like totally admiring biographies. Everybody has detractors one way or another.  People said Ginsburg was withdrawn, not outgoing, but still capable of friendship. You get to know her in a way and are free to make up your own mind without propaganda and opinions.

My third documentary was “Whitney,” about Whitney Houston, a variation on the movie bios that show the rise and fall of great performance artists. It offers fabulous sounds and sights and intriguing glimpses of the era of the black music scene. We watch Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis dancing gracefully while Houston sings patriotic songs that emphasize the value of freedom and the dignity of the flag that represents our shared dreams of liberty and justice. 

As we left the matinee show, we held open the door for two elderly women, who were saying, “This movie taught me that there are three curses: fame, beauty, and wealth. It’s better to be just ordinary!”   

I end my praise for the splendid achievements of these documentary filmmakers on that note.  

MIKE FINK ( teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.