As gentle, reassuring, unprepossessing, and genuinely heartfelt as its subject, Won't You Be My Neighbor?, Morgan Neville's documentary about the late Fred Rogers and his culturally defining television show Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, is a much-needed respite from all the rancor, anger, violence, and division that currently defines our deeply troubled times. Sadly, the film hit theaters at the same time the news was filled with story after story about immigrant families being torn apart by the Trump Administration's cruel "zero tolerance" policy-exactly the kind of mean-spirited bullying that Rogers spent his life resisting. Yet, at the same time, such simultaneity is fitting given that Rogers's eponymous television series first appeared in 1968, which is widely considered one of the most violent years in modern U.S. history. So, maybe it is serendipitous that we are being reminded of Fred Rogers's unifying message at the exact moment when our culture is at its most divided.
Neville began his documentary career helming episodes of A&E's Biography series before turning to feature-length work, where he has made films about such disparate figures as musicians Johnny Cash (2008's Johnny Cash's America) and Keith Richards (2015's Keith Richards: Under the Influence) and public intellectuals Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley (2015's Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal). The Vidal/Buckley film, which focused on a series of televised debates between the liberal and conservative figures in 1968, works as a sort of companion piece to Won't You Be My Neighbor?, as both films look back with a sense of loss at a time when there were other possibilities for the great medium of television, which FCC chairman Newton Minow had famously declared a "great wasteland" seven years earlier. Neville's film, like Rogers himself, argues otherwise-that television is a medium of possibilities that simply has to be used the right way. That, if anything, is Rogers's greatest legacy: He got into television because he disliked so much of what was on it and sought to make a difference, in the process creating a legacy of positive change to which others can look when it all seems so hopeless (one of the film's most moving moments captures an adult woman coming up to Rogers and telling him how much his show affected her as a child). As he puts it in one of the archival interviews that form the film's backbone, "What we see and hear on the screen is part of who we become," and he sincerely believed that we could become something better.
Rogers planned to be a minister before discovering the nascent world of television in the early 1950s, which he saw as a vehicle for helping children learn and cope with their emotions in a complicated world. After working on several other programs, he created Mister Rogers' Neighborhood as an alternative to all the loud, violent, slapsticky children's programming-a simple, but never simplistic, vehicle that allowed him to speak directly to kids while demonstrating the virtues of kindness, listening, and empathy. As long-time producer Margaret Whitmore puts it, "If you take all of the elements that make good television and do the exact opposite, you have Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Low production values, simple set, an unlikely star. Yet, it worked." The alchemy that Rogers achieved with his sock puppets, gentle demeanor, and zip-up sweaters was genuinely magical and all too easy to underestimate.
The word "radical" is not necessarily one that you would immediately associate with Rogers's show, but there really is no better word to describe the way it went against the grain of what virtually all other children's programming looked like and the choice of subject matter that Rogers tackled. The first few episodes dealt with change and the importance of peace, and seeing the puppet King Friday XIII express his fear of change and his desire to build a wall around his kingdom to protect it rings all too loud and clear today; although no exlicit lines are drawn to Donald Trump and his anti-immigrant fantasies about "a big, beautiful" southern border wall, it is impossible not to make the connection. Rogers would later go on to spend multiple episodes on weighty subjects such as death, divorce, and assassination (followed the killing of Robert Kennedy), and he subtly challenged the status quo of race relations by sharing a footbath with Franois Clemmons, the African American actor who played Officer Clemmons, at a time when it was verboten for blacks and whites to swim together. Rogers was gently radical, but radical nonetheless.
Although it is not an simple hagiography, Neville's film certainly celebrates the personal, moral, and ethical traits that Rogers embodied both on- and off-screen. There is a tendency to think that no one could be that thoughtful, that selfless, that kind, that downright nice, but by all accounts, that is exactly what Fred Rogers was, as evidenced by the various interviewees who appear in the film. These include Rogers's widow Joanne and his two sons, Jim and John, and a number of his long-time collaborators and stars of the show. They discuss him in generally fond terms, and there is little in the way of criticism to be found (we do see evidence of some of the misguided jabs that have been taken at Rogers over the years, including a talking head on Fox and a newspaper editorial blaming an entitled "me generation" on his insistence that everyone is special, but that's about it). There are also some surprisingly funny stories from the set, one of which involves a photo of an assistant director mooning the camera, and some touching anecdotes, including one from Clemmons, who relates how Rogers came to accept his homosexuality after initially telling him to stay in the closet lest the show lose funding. We see a lot of familiar beats, including the oft-shared footage of Rogers securing $20 million of funding for PBS by melting hardline Senator John Pastore and his gentle, honest meeting with Jeff Erlanger, a 10-year-old disabled boy who appeared on his program.
Even more than a decade and a half after his death in 2003, Rogers remains as a towering model of civility and human decency who would certainly be disappointed at all the rancor, ugliness, and incivility the defines public discourse in the Trump era. But, that's the problem with writing about Won't You Be My Neighbor-you end up reviewing Fred Rogers, rather than the film itself. Neville's documentary is straightforward and largely unfussy, and in this regard it is not particularly great or daring; it never reaches the insight and power of the wistful, poetic 1998 essay "Can You Say Hero?" by Tom Junod, who appears as an interview subject. I couldn't help but love the film, but largely because of its subject and the care with which it is treated; afterwards, I felt myself wishing that it had dug a little deeper, rather than giving us a relatively familiar chronology of events that is fleshed out at times with animated sequences suggesting Rogers's inner life and how he dealt with his own insecurities and fears through his program. But, at the same time, I can't help but think that Rogers would appreciate Neville's directness and simplicity, traits that he cherished in his own work and recognized as crucial to cutting through all the noise of life and making real, genuine connections.
Copyright © 2018 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Focus Features
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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