In the end, Mr. Rogers still wondered if he’d made a difference – if his goal to teach children to be more loving, both of strangers and of themselves, had actually changed anything. The kind of terrible, lowest-common-denominator, commercial-driven children’s television which first called Rogers into action in the 1960s still existed at the time of his death in 2003. The hate and divisiveness of the Nixon era was back in full force. The still-developing alt-right movement excoriated Rogers’ legacy of teaching children they’re special just the way they are. It was enough to inspire him to look at the world and wonder if anything had actually changed.
That particular revelation from Morgan Neville’s new, buzzy documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? knocked me off my feet (I’d say “off my ass,” but obviously Mr. Rogers wouldn’t approve of such foul language). This is a man who devoted three+ decades of his life to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, won multiple Peabody Awards, was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame and was awarded a freakin’ Presidential Medal of Freedom. He, the doc argues through rather startling archival footage from his appearance in front of a Congressional Subcommittee, is most chiefly responsible for saving PBS back in 1968 when Richard Nixon came gunning for it. He touched the lives of countless children around the world, yet even he was not immune to despair or the kind of existential dread that keeps you up all night.
The failure, however, was not his but our own. Simply put, Fred Rogers was too good for this world. Hopefully, his life and this documentary should inspire us all to be just a little better.
Let’s back up.
My personal experience with Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, like a lot of people’s experience I’d imagine, is of watching the show as a child only to grow up and watch it be mocked by pop culture, understandably so. The show – with its simplistic theme song politely asking us to be neighbors, a sweater-sporting host who talked as if his vocal cords were moving in slow motion, and a fantasy kingdom populated by dingy-looking hand puppets – is so pure and sincere it almost hurts.
Of course that would be chewed up and spit out by adult eyes:
However, in the here and now the world could use a voice as gentle as Fred’s. That’s the entire reason Neville felt compelled to make this documentary in the first place. As he told Kim Masters on KCRW’s The Business, “I started this film a couple of years ago, and the basic trend that we’ve had in our culture for a long time – of incivility, of divisiveness – was the thing I was reacting to. Really, what made me want to start the film was staying up too late one night on YouTube watching Fred Rogers speeches. I just felt like this was a voice we don’t hear in our culture anywhere. This adult, grown-up voice that’s empathetic and looking out for the long-term health, really, as a culture.”
Neville, to be fair, isn’t the first person to grant Rogers the documentary treatment. PBS produced Fred Rogers: America’s Favorite Neighbor back in 2004, but Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, with its new interviews with Rogers’ widow, adult sons, and the show’s cast and crew, is more attuned to the toxicity of today. Neville, an Oscar winner for 20 Feet from Stardom, makes his point without ever having to directly reference Trump, Jordan Peterson, gamergate, or anything nearly that specific.
That’s because Won’t You Be My Neighbor? aims to be both a from-cradle-to-crave chronicling of one man’s life and an embodiment of that man’s message. It certainly does justice for the former, revealing much that the casual viewer will find surprising and intriguing. I, for one, had no idea Rogers was an ordained minister who was born into wealth and fell into TV almost by accident. Similarly, I was unaware how socially progressive Mister Rogers’ could be, devoting its first week to anti-Vietnam commentary and later inviting a black member of the cast to wash his feet together with Fred’s on camera (the premise: it’s such a hot day we need to wash our feet) as a direct rebuke to the southern racists who were then barring African-Americans from swimming with white people.
But the doc’s biggest accomplishment is in honoring and advancing Fred’s cause. One of the most effective moments comes not from any retelling of Rogers’ career or past as an ordained minister but instead when everyone interviewed is asked to reflect on one of Rogers’ biggest teachings, which is to always remember, cherish, and honor the people – parents, guardians, mentors, or otherwise – responsible for making you who you are. Their silence and ensuing tears as they clearly flash to a lost loved one forces you, as the viewer, to do exactly the same. That’s why everyone keeps crying at this movie.
In that same KCRW interview, Neville further explained Fred’s philosophy:
“His message, really, I mean he talks about the neighborhood and being a good neighbor, but he’s really talking about the fundamental issues of how we live together in a society and what kind of citizens we’re going to be. What’s our responsibility to each other? It’s the most basic stuff that people take for granted, and what you realize is you have to nurture those things. You can’t take them for granted. Fred was trying to teach kids and, now maybe adults, the importance of being considerate toward each other.”
Neville, making liberal use of old Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood clips as well as some behind the scenes bloopers and Rogers family footage, manages to communicate that message without dipping into full-on hagiography. Rogers was reluctant to truly allow a gay member of the cast to be themselves for fear of the heat that might bring down on the show, and that is directly addressed. Yet, by the end that very same gay cast member, fighting back tears, recalls later being accepted, without condition, by Fred, who he came to regard as his surrogate father.
Even Rogers’ weakest moment led to baptismal light, a cathartic cry, and a person who was made better just for knowing him.
Like I said earlier, Mr. Rogers was just too good for this world, but Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – excellently put together, persuasively argued, and emotional without being cloying – is a documentary worthy of the man.
THE BOTTOM LINE
This movie is an empathy machine released into an age of perpetual outrage. What a revolutionary concept, this whole “just be nice and accepting” thing Fred Rogers did.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
- Another surprising revelation from Won’t You Be My Neighbor?: Mr. Rogers was a lifelong Republican.
- I saw this at the Alamo Drafthouse Sloan’s Lake in Denver, Colorado. All of the staff wore T-shirts made to resemble Fred’s famous sweater-tie-white-shirt look, and every seat came with its own small package of tissues. From the sounds of the mass-weeping, the majority of the crowd definitely needed those tissues by the end.
- Producer Margaret Whitmer perfectly describes the show: “We had a director that once said to me, ‘If you take all that elements that make good television and do the exact opposite, you have Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.’ Low-production values, simple set, unlikely star.”
- As per Hollywood tradition, this documentary is the first to market, but there is a feature film in the works, set to star Tom Hanks as Rogers. Recent history suggests the documentary will probably be better than the feature film, but, to be fair, Hanks is a superb casting choice.