Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)

Genre: Documentary Running Time: 1 hr. 34 min.

Release Date: June 8th, 2018 MPAA Rating: PG-13

Director: Morgan Neville Actors: Fred Rogers, Joanne Rogers, Francois Scarborough Clemmons, Yo-Yo Ma, Joe Negri, David Newell

 


 

I

t may be a bit philosophical, but Fred Rogers wished to utilize the mass media for the benefit of children and to guide them through the ups and downs – the different modulations – of life. His experience with music aided in the determination that, like the varying transitions between musical notes, many ideas (especially those of morality and mortality) are difficult for children to navigate smoothly. In 1967, under the umbrella of television station WQED in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he began programming wholesome and educational content for children. As one colleague mused, everything that made for good TV was abandoned by Rogers. Instead, he embraced low production values, simple sets, and an unlikely star to connect with his target audience. And it all seemed to work.

“I think maybe I’ll go into television,” suggested Rogers, back when such a notion could actually be achieved, despite the ordained minister having no knowledge or background in entertainment. It did help tremendously that his inner child never went away; he could remember exactly what it felt like to be a kid, and to use his imagination to make his own fun, originated by an assortment of childhood diseases he endured while growing up (including scarlet fever). As his efforts in television programming got underway, he also worked with child psychologists to pinpoint ways in which he could effectively communicate with an area of society for which cinematic materials were not often directed. As he mentions, young audiences are routinely treated as eventual, impressionable consumers, not wide-eyed innocents and hungry learners. And so, in February of 1968, the first episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was born.

The documentary itself is constructed with the standard talking heads of friends and family and associates, but also with numerous other visual elements, such as home movies, animation, contemporary and modern interviews (though Betty Aberlin and a few other costars are conspicuously absent from these), and archival footage of his shows and media appearances – a few of which lead up to his death in 2003. Organized somewhat chronologically, the picture establishes, quite profoundly, his radical utilization of television for good – not money. As he tries to get a message across in every episode (though carefully maneuvering around overt religious themes), the subject matter parallels current events, politics, and even war. As the documentary examines and explains what – and who – influenced the show, viewers are given an intimate portrait of this warm, funny, good-natured man – a figure who seems woefully absent from present-day culture. There really isn’t anyone else like him, or anyone to fill the void created from the close of his series.

“Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” astonishingly tackled the adult notions of race relations, suicide, assassination, grief, and divorce (among many others), all while Rogers’ impact on the state of television itself shaped not only media, but history – including a senate hearing during which he virtually single-handedly won a $20 million round of funding for PBS. When other children’s programs shifted toward fast-paced, violent, ever more abrasive forms of eye-catching appeal, Rogers stuck with simplicity, a purposeful slowness, and even silence; where others hoped to shock kids, he was able to connect and communicate to a vastly different degree. He wasn’t pandering; he was educating and consoling.

But was he actually like his television persona in real life? According to those who knew him best, Fred Rogers was indeed exactly as he appeared onscreen. The documentary touches upon his youth, his personal life, and his many eccentricities, refusing to dispense with areas of controversy and criticism; there just doesn’t seem to be any skeletons in his closet. Rogers was a truly singular, uncommonly inspirational individual. Perhaps best of all, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” details his career with enough care that viewers won’t have to depend solely on nostalgia to appreciate the history of this life-affirming character. Insightful and deeply emotional, this documentary is a delight from start to finish, chronicling an astounding hero for all time – and one who traded a cape for a sweater, and superpowers for simple tunes that spoke volumes about human decency and love.

– Mike Massie

  • 9/10