It does not matter if you’ve ever seen Mr. Rogers show, or even heard of him prior to sitting down in theater – you owe it your own psyche to spend 90 minutes with this beautiful story. See it immediately.
What Works: Everything.
Won’t You be My Neighbor? isn’t really interested in who Mr. Rogers was to audiences. Rather, it explores who he, and his audience, was to Mr. Rogers.
What is the psychology behind this singularly unique figure, a generation-spanning source of empathy and kindness? And most importantly: what lessons should be drawn from that?
The documentary soars in this regard. Far from the stiff (though undeniably informative) stuff of Ken Burns or other “benchmark” docs, Won’t You be My Neighbor? never stops. It transitions from story to story, skipping through the timeline of his life, only designated by powerfully illustrated animated “title cards” of sorts.
The interviews are engaging and emotional, and include his family, friends, fellow cast members, and related-industry professionals. The mix of people allow for a nuanced view of who the man was: entertainer, family man, early childhood psychology advocate, savior of public arts, and so on.
Careful not to lionize too far, the interviews also provide insight into Rogers’ vulnerability, his self-doubts, and his failures.
If the doc has any message at the end of the day, it is not to advocate for the man himself, but for what Rogers believed in.
It believes in emotional honesty, believing in the trauma and wonder of children, and treating that most impressionable sector of humanity as people first.
What Doesn’t: There’s very little to ignore in his life – but context can still be explored.
There’s very little to critique about Rogers’ life, as far as the documentary, and general public feeling, is concerned. He believed deeply in civil rights, peace, and the welfare of children of any background, color, and creed.
But the doc does touch, ever so briefly, on one of the strange realities of the priorities Rogers had to navigate: he was a life-long Republican, and his show lived or died with the funding of his public access show. And so, if there is any critique, it’s that these one-off sections could’ve used deeper context.
How did Rogers navigate being a proud Republican his whole life, while the elected officials of his party fought to suppress civil rights for POC, LGBTQ+, and the poor? Rogers was vehemently outspoken against violence, especially war – how did he square that with Iran-Contra or the Gulf Wars?
The doc does touch, again very briefly, on his own hypocrisy in regards to loving and accepting his friend and cast member François Clemmons, an African-American actor who played a police officer on the show and was out as a gay. Despite Rogers’ messages, he refused to allow Clemmons to be openly gay on his show, fearing the repercussions.
While Clemmons himself provides this interview, and clearly has nothing but love for Rogers, it is another interesting contextual point that could’ve used a little more time.
Beyond the Screen: A revival is something we desperately need.
One thing seemed obvious once the credits rolled: where is our new Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood?
In times like these, the necessity of a show who’s entire aim is to let children have a safe space to express themselves emotionally, openly, and to be vulnerable, while exploring the intricacies of growing up, class, race, religion, and more, cannot be overstated.
So why haven’t we seen a remake/reboot all these years later? Perhaps his shadow is simply too large to live in. Or maybe the necessity of its life on public access television, and the coinciding defunding of that medium in the past twenty years, go hand in hand in dissuading prospective producers.
Nonetheless, I hope that the success of this documentary, and the upcoming biopic starting Tom Hanks, do something to inspire somebody, somewhere, to don the sweater.
We really need it.
“From Academy Award-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom), Won’t You Be My Neighbor? takes an intimate look at America’s favorite neighbor: Mister Fred Rogers. A portrait of a man whom we all think we know, this emotional and moving film takes us beyond the zip-up cardigans and the land of make-believe, and into the heart of a creative genius who inspired generations of children with compassion and limitless imagination.” -Rotten Tomatoes