I’m sure I won’t be the first or only person to say this, but this documentary could not have come at a better time. From the great director Morgan Neville (the Oscar-winning 20 Feet from Stardom, as well as Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal) comes Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, a profile of one of the greatest men of compassion ever to grace the television airwaves, Fred Rogers. For more than 30 years, Rogers hosted “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” a low-budget children’s show that taught kids to grow up to be better people than they might otherwise have.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? not only moves through Rogers’ personal history and the background on how the show was created, but it digs deep into his philosophy on how children think and respond to all manner of stimuli, including some very dark topics. He believed that if you were honest, direct and explained all that you could about such topics as assassination, racial segregation, war, and other difficult subjects, you could make the most out of whatever the world throws at us.
The film features many of the players and crew members who worked with Rogers, who also wrote, produced and acted as puppeteer (complete with voices) for all of the characters in his make-believe world, which he always made clear to children was not real, compared to the scenes of him in his TV home.
An ordained Presbyterian minister by training, Rogers was as decent and beloved a man as ever walked the earth, and it wasn’t just children that believed that. In some extraordinary archival footage shot during the Nixon administration (which very much wanted to cut funding to PBS, where “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” made its home), we see Rogers testifying before Congress about the desperate need children had for his show, shows like it, and PBS as a whole. It’s remarkable to watch the grumpy, old men ready to pass judgement on his future melt like children themselves as he speaks. Funding was continued as a result.
For a great deal of the documentary, you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, expecting to hear about Rogers’ dark side or some scandal that befell his life or career that maybe you forgot about. But no, the worst you can say about him was that he had less patience with adults than he did children, and that he told bad jokes from time to time. He didn’t take himself too seriously, but he did take his mission (or perhaps you could call it a ministry) seriously. When you see the way children reacted to being in his presence, your heart stops for second and then swells to the point of bursting.
There are more than a couple of genuinely sweet moments in Won’t You Be My Neighbor? that will likely have you fumbling for a tissue. The one that got me was toward the end, when the filmmakers use an old Rogers’ trick of making everyone take a minute of silence to think about someone that did something truly nice for them. They ask most of the people interviewed in the film to do this, and the results are surprising and moving beyond all measure. Naturally, many say the person they thought of was Rogers, but it’s the ones who don’t that bring the waterworks.
We’re living in a world that seems committed to if not outright self-destruction, then at least self-mutilation. I’m sure there are more than a few parents out there who think that Rogers’ way of educating children made generations of kids grow up soft and unprepared for the harshness of this world. I couldn’t disagree more.
Rogers instilled his pupils with emotional fortitude and made them more able to deal with anything life throws at them. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? gives us all the evidence we need to prove just that. Gather everyone you care about and go see this—easily one of the best and most necessary films you’ll see in all year.
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