For more than three decades, Fred Rogers brought kindness and compassion into children’s lives through his television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. As one of the millions of children watching, I know I was deeply affected by his presence, but I, like so many other young people, couldn’t possibly have realized just how profound, and even how subversive his work was.
That’s the message of the new documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor, which is almost remarkable in its simplicity. It doesn’t seek to make any big revelations about its subject. Rather, it retells a story we all already lived through, for an audience that is now able to appreciate what that experience and the man behind it truly meant.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor tells Rogers’ story starting from his struggle over the decision between joining the seminary vs. this newfangled television thing he was so drawn to. At that time, in the mid-1960s, children’s programming wasn’t really a thing. It’s powerful to watch Rogers describe in his own words what it was he thought he could provide to children, not sure if the ideas made sense to anyone but him, with us, the audience, knowing what the next 30+ years of his career would look like and just how right he was. This moment, like so many others throughout the film, reads like a love letter to Rogers. But for its entirety, the fawning manages to stay genuine, never forced or cloying or saccharine.
Like many biopic documentaries, a central question that keeps coming up, and one that much of the audience is likely hoping to have answered, is “Was he the man he appeared to be on television?” Could a man really be that kind, that patient, that invested in the emotional wellbeing of every individual child he’s never met? The answer is a firm yes. While that may sound like an unexciting premise for a movie–just a kind man expressing gentle love–that’s the exact story of the TV show. As we hear in the film, “If you take all of the elements that make good television and do the exact opposite, you have Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Rogers wasn’t interested in cashing in on the ideas that so many others thought were necessary to hook children–the action, the clowning, the dumbing-down or over-stimulation–and neither is the documentary.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor is the story of Fred Rogers’ television career, told by the people who worked alongside him. There are a couple of celebrity friends (like Yo-Yo Ma, with some great stories), but mostly, we hear from his family, his producers, his co-stars, and the like. Again, the point isn’t so much to expose any hidden realities or even to “humanize” Rogers, but more to confirm that he was already as human as can be. If he seemed too good to be true, maybe we’ve set our standards too low.
For fans of Rogers, who have fallen down internet rabbit holes of his life stories, the anecdotes told here will likely already be familiar. The film touches on some of the corners of Rogers’ lore, addressing the fantastical stories–stories of full-sleeve arm tattoos and a military background–made up out of disbelief that a man could really be this wholesome. And not every story contributes to the overall portrait of perfection. (One in particular about his refusal to allow a gay co-star to come out publically hits especially hard.) But those incidents reinforce his humanity. Because he wasn’t perfect. But he was good and kind he loved you, even if he’d never met you. This movie’s ultimate message, like Rogers’ himself, seems to be simply that that shouldn’t be so hard to believe.
(image: Jim Judkis / Focus Features)
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