11:13, June 27 49 0 theguardian.com

2018-06-27 11:13:04
How two small documentaries stormed the US box office this summer

This summer, a striking number of US moviegoers have chosen quieter heroes over the loud Marvel clatter. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and RBG, twin-brained panegyrics to kids TV host Mister Rogers and supreme court justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, have earned a combined $15m at the box office – whopping numbers for two documentaries with zero lasers, punches or zaps (RBG is already the 26th biggest doc of all time and last weekend saw Won’t You Be My Neighbor edge into the top 10). Consider these ticket sales a tithe. On Twitter, fans talk about their attendance as if they’d been to church. They cried, sighed and worshipped these icons of steadfast goodwill, and exited the theater inspired.

Good for them – and good for the independent film-makers who trusted their audience’s craving for stories about true courage, not CGI hijinx. (Rogers famously loathed the Superman franchise for encouraging kids to leap off of roofs.) Ginsberg graduated with honors at her mostly male law school while raising a toddler and nursing her young husband though cancer. At 85, she does daily push-ups to stay strong enough to battle the culturally out-of-step conservatism of the court. Fred Rogers convinced television executives that children deserved emotionally intelligent programming. He talked honestly to his young viewers about death and divorce, even defining the word “assassination” the day after Robert Kennedy was killed.

Facebook Twitter Pinterest

The irony is, today Rogers’ voice is directed at adults. At his Sundance premiere, director Morgan Neville described Won’t You Be My Neighbor? as “therapy”. Rogers finished recording new episodes in December 2000, nine months before the World Trade Center attacks that set the United States, and the world, on its present polarized course. Yet his compassion echoes. As nice as it would be to have his voice in the present conversation, one imagines him shaking his head to see that a country made of the children he mentored is no better off today then it was when he launched the show in 1968. Back then, the would-be priest, still wounded by the school bullies who’d called him “Fat Freddy,” was upset that impressionable kids were watching clowns hit each other with pies. Now, kids are watching other kids being stripped from their parents. If Stephen Miller grew up watching Mister Rogers model empathy to strangers, the lesson didn’t take.

Rogers was a lifelong Republican. He was awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W Bush. After Rogers died in 2003, the US House of Representatives voted to honor “his dedication to spreading kindness through example” –unanimously. RBG directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen note that Ginsberg, too, was once nearly as embraced. Her 1993 Senate confirmation vote was 96 to 3, and after she ascended to the court, she nurtured a combative, yet affectionate friendship with conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, seeded by their mutual love of opera.

How civilized. Part of why RBG and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? function as lullabies for a nerve-frayed nation is their reminder of when political antics didn’t merit a spanking. By July of 2007, a Fox & Friends newscaster launched into a segment on Rogers frothing, “This evil, evil man has ruined a generation of kids.” His crime? Telling all children they were special. Two other anchors joined in the pillory, and advised youngsters watching the station: “The world owes you nothing.”

Facebook Twitter Pinterest

Ginsburg has endured her own attacks from the channel. RBG opens with a montage of pundits demonized the 85-year-old judge as a “witch,” “monster,” and “zombie”. Meanwhile, the left has glitter-gunned her into a kitsch icon. Etsy offers nearly a thousand Ginsburg totems for sale including a Ginsberg prayer candle, a dissent collar baby bib and a coffee mug with a sketch of Ginsberg flipping the bird.

What’s striking about these extreme reactions, and the crowd enthusiasm their documentaries have surfed, is that neither Ginsberg nor Rogers were rousing figures. Instead, they were stubbornly serene. They presented a controlled mask to the public, which their documentarians are unable to peel off. What they’re really like before their morning coffee, we’ll never know. Rogers hid his anxieties, expressed only in his insistence on maintaining a weight of 143lbs. (No one could call him “Fat Freddie” then.) And Ginsburg is required to tuck her politics underneath her black robe. A 2016 slip-up when she expressed her dislike of Donald Trump to the New York Times was a tactical mistake, allowing the then-candidate to tweet, “Her mind is shot – resign!”

Perhaps their blank composure is why they, and their films, have become such stirring symbols in this over-heated summer. Audiences can project their own emotions on them, transforming Ginsburg from her true self, an even-tempered mediator, to the swaggering Notorious RBG, and nominating Rogers to be the real Captain America – which would have made the superhero-hater recoil. On the firm footing of his own show, Rogers could slip off his shoes. But in 2018, he can’t shake the cape.

Topics