Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Directed by Morgan Neville who won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for 2013’s 20 Feet from Stardom, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is an excellent documentary about the remarkably kind children’s television host Fred Rogers and provides insight into what inspired him to create the iconic television program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. When the low-budget family-friendly show debuted on Pittsburgh public television in 1968, nobody could foresee the impact that the soft-spoken ordained minister Fred Rogers would have on children’s programming and the education of young minds through such a new medium as television. The documentary gives an insider’s look into Mister Rogers by interviewing cast and crew members as well as his children and surviving wife who describe his personal life reflective of his on-screen persona as a gentle and patient man who truly cared about children. Because of his profound influence on the millions of people who grew up with his breakthrough show that premiered its last episode in 2001, the film is at times emotional for the audience by bringing back such heartwarming and joyous memories to life. In a day in age in which several iconic personalities have let down audiences after the revelation of egregious moral failings, it is refreshing to see a movie about a honest-to-goodness wonderful human who always presented his true inner self and simply wanted to do what was best for others. As presented by the documentary, there were times when Fred Rogers struggled and felt the obligation to discuss rather depressing topics with his young audience, including the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in 1968. Overall, I found it to be a truly fascinating glimpse into the life of Fred Rogers and his passion for creating Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and I would highly recommend it to anybody who watched Mister Rogers or simply looking for a heartwarming story about a positive figure during such a divisive time in our country.

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Pope Francis: A Man of His Word

Directed by acclaimed German filmmaker Wim Wenders best known for the award-winning 1984 film Paris, Texas, Pope Francis: A Man of His Word is a fascinating documentary that explores the central tenets of Pope Francis and his views on Catholic theology in the context of the ever-evolving modern world. Becoming the pope in 2013 after serving as the Archbishop in his hometown Buenos Aires, Argentina, Pope Francis arose as a remarkable choice for the Catholic Church as a result of being a Jesuit from South America and his unique decision to take the name Francis in honor of Saint Francis. A majority of the film is essentially a wide-ranging sermon given by Pope Francis to the audience through a series of interviews with the filmmaker who also acts as the narrator. The documentary also contains several dramatic reenactments of Saint Francis of Assisi who lived in 13th century Italy to illuminate why Pope Francis was the first pope to choose the name Francis and how Pope Francis’ theology derives from the humble and nature-focused Saint Francis. Interspersed with footage of his many visits to the people around the world, the interviews touch on the most pressing issues of his papacy, including economic inequality, the environment, global peace, and respect for all humanity no matter their religion. It is important to note that the movie is not a biographical documentary about his life but rather has the main purpose of promoting the positive messages of Pope Francis. Unlike almost any other pope in history, Pope Francis is massively popular to his followers and those of all faiths as a result of his progressive ideas on religion and philosophy in today’s chaotic world. Overall, I found it to be a deeply insightful documentary about one of the most powerful religious figures and powerfully illustrates Pope Francis’ radical departure from previous popes to provide a more inclusive and optimistic theology. Even if you are not Catholic or even a Christian, the viewer comes away with a greater appreciation of Pope Francis and his hopeful mission.

RBG

Directed by documentarians Julie Cohen and Betsy West, RBG is an engrossing documentary with unprecedented access that chronicles the truly remarkable life of the 85-year-old Associate Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Especially during today’s trying political climate, the soft-spoken Justice Ginsburg and her still acute legal mind that tends to fall on the liberal side has become a hero for those on the left. As a result of her powerful dissenting opinions championing progressive ideals, she has morphed into a pop culture icon who is even referred to as The Notorious RBG named after the popular rapper The Notorious BIG. The in-depth film does a terrific job of contextualizing Justice Ginsburg by presenting her legal life beginning with being one of only a few women at Harvard Law School, through her largely underappreciated role as an early legal figure for gender equality, and finally her career as a Supreme Court Justice known for her incisive judgments. Not many people know that she argued in front of the Supreme Court and won several cases in favor of women’s rights at the height of the women’s liberation movement. The filmmakers also delve into her personal life, especially her loving relationship with her now deceased husband Martin Ginsburg who always supported her even as he had his own legal career. Especially rare for the publicly reserved members of the Supreme Court, Justice Ginsburg is herself interviewed throughout the documentary as she gives a first-hand account of her life. She is further humanized as we even get to see her interact with her children and grandchildren. Although it is obviously biased in favor of Justice Ginsburg and her traditionally liberal views, the movie also depicts her as a revered non-partisan legal thinker who generally has the respect of her conservative counterparts. For instance, it touches on her friendly relationship with the recently deceased Justice Antonin Scalia despite their polar opposite views on most legal matters before the Court. Overall, I found it to be a well-crafted documentary that provides important insight into one of the most important political and legal figures of our time and should be viewed even if you do not support Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s clearly liberal positions.

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power

A follow-up to the 2006 Academy Award-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power is a profound environmental documentary that resonates particularly well now with the current politically divisive debate over global climate change policy. Like the original, it follows former Vice President Al Gore as he sounds the alarm on the increasingly dire effects of global warming largely caused by industrial and energy production pollution. The cameras film Gore as he travels the world giving his famous slideshow about global warming to various climate leadership forums. He also refutes his critics, who say he is exaggerating what’s happening to the Earth, by outlining empirical evidence and actually traveling to Greenland to show the rapidly melting glaciers. In an especially provocative scene, his claim in the original documentary that the World Trade Center site could be flooded in the near future, a statement many critics laughed off, is unfortunately proven true when Superstorm Sandy in 2012 floods the construction site at the new World Trade Center. Much of the movie revolves around the surprisingly riveting and complicated negotiations of the landmark Paris Climate Accord in 2015. For instance, Gore personally deals with the hesitancy of the Indian government who are still relying on dirty energy sources as a result of financial constraints. Eventually, a record deal, in which 195 countries agreed to help reduce carbon emissions and stabilize global temperatures, was reached in April 2015 in Paris. Since I saw an early screening of the film, it did not include the recent decision of the Trump Administration to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. With huge implications for the United States and the world as a whole, this dramatic development has forced the filmmakers to work on a new version of the documentary by fully re-editing the film’s cautiously optimistic conclusion about global warming. Overall, I found it to be important movie that sheds more light on the serious issues surrounding global warming and makes the new political developments much more worrisome.

Finding Oscar

Produced by Steven Spielberg, Finding Oscar is a riveting and shocking documentary about one of the largest massacres during the 36 year-long Guatemalan Civil War. Under the de facto military president, an elite group of soldiers tasked with eliminating guerrilla fighters entered the small rural village Dos Erres in December 1982 allegedly to flush out the anti-government fighters supposedly hiding in the village. What unfolded was the killing of over two hundred innocent men, women, and children who were beaten to death and thrown into a local well. Only two young boys survived, and they were taken by two soldiers to become members of their family. The film follows the contemporary forensic anthropologists who went through the victim’s skeletal remains to uncover the truth that the Guatemalan military was responsible for the massacre. In hopes of gathering more details and an eyewitness account of that day, a group of activists search the world for the two surviving boys, especially a boy named Oscar who was particularly hard to find. Through the accounts of the forensic anthropologists, activists, lawyers, some of the soldiers that committed the atrocities, and surviving family members, we learn about a war that many in the United States are unaware of and the unheard of war crimes, including the estimated 200,000 dead civilians and this particularly horrific massacre. More disturbing is the fact that the United States government and President Ronald Reagan supported the Guatemalan regime and had friendly meetings with the very president who ordered the massacre around the same time. Overall, I found it to be a terrific documentary that highlights a atrociously bloody war that took place in our hemisphere yet most Americans know nothing about; this powerful film provides a much-needed history lesson about Guatemala and the questionable dealings of the United States had with the regimes during the Civil War.

Weiner

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Following the 2013 New York City mayoral candidacy of former congressman Anthony Weiner, Weiner is a superb political documentary that is at the same time funny and tragic. The film is a behind-the-scenes look at Weiner’s shot at political redemption, two years after resigning from Congress in 2011 for his infamous sexting scandal. It begins with archival footage of his promising career, especially his impassioned support for the 9/11 first responders health bill. Mostly relying on the filmmakers simply rolling the camera in a cinéma vérité style, we watch a political campaign starting from the ground up and eventually building momentum. However, an even more disastrous scandal, involving Weiner sending much more explicit images after the first revelation, proves to derail the campaign. The film unwittingly becomes a case study in crisis management. Almost comically, nothing seems to stop the nuclear meltdown that has become Anthony Weiner’s campaign. One of the more fascinating aspects of the documentary is the cringe-worthy reactions of his wife Huma Abedin, a close aide to Hillary Clinton. She becomes a sympathetic character whose marital problems are relentlessly made public. As a result, the film is at times painful to watch as Abedin is paraded in front of the cameras and Weiner continues to make things worse. The story really is stranger than fiction, and it is hard not to laugh at the absurdities of the situation, particularly with his last name. The filmmaker rightly asks Weiner why on Earth would he agree to being filmed. The movie is also about the modern media who, fairly or not, completely focused on salacious details at the detriment of the central characters. Through its fly-on-the-wall style, the documentary reminded me of the groundbreaking 1993 political documentary The War Room about Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign. Overall, I would highly recommend the film for its ability to incisively show the inner workings of a political campaign, one mired in scandal and damage control. It is able to delve into the usually mundane world of politics in a entertaining and riveting fashion.

Dark Horse

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Dark Horse is a fascinating documentary that tells the inspiring story of a group of working-class people working together to overcome adversity. In a sleepy Welsh town impoverished since the local mine’s closure, a barmaid decides to become a racing horse owner. She gathers together a horse syndicate comprised of fellow working-class townspeople and breed a scrappy horse named Dream Alliance. As true underdogs, they take on the elitist horse racing establishment that can spend millions per horse. The film effectively underscores the disparity by juxtaposing  footage of British aristocrats in their fancy hats against Dream Alliance’s down-to-earth owners with their tattoos and missing teeth. Despite their dire situations in life, the townspeople seemed happy just to have a glimmer of hope and success. As I watched the story unfold, it felt as if I was one of the owners and cheered the horse on through its ups and downs. The documentary embodies the powerful spirit of perseverance against all odds and makes you believe in humanity. As such, I would highly recommend the movie and your spirits will definitely be uplifted after watching.