Photos | Focus Features / Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
From left: “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is an exploration of the life, lessons and legacy of iconic children’s television host Fred Rogers. Lady Gaga stars alongside Bradley Cooper in “A Star Is Born,” Cooper’s directorial debut about a struggling musician who helps a newcomer find fame.
Among the many moments that make “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” a balm for the soul and soothing to the senses is the propensity its subject, Mr. Fred Rogers, had for the sound of silence. When this straightforward and beautiful documentary reminds us of Mister Rogers’ many memorable contributions to children’s television, maybe the most enduring, unusual and extremely necessary moment is when he simply sets a time and lets us sit quietly for an entire minute. That alone is a rare thing in life, much less on television.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” shows us the real Fred Rogers who, mercifully, seems to be exactly who he was on television for decades. Trained and ordained as a minister, he felt a call to get into public television because he was disturbed by the commercialism he saw in the burgeoning world of kids’ entertainment, which is adorably quaint when you think about what we watch today. He believed, with an evangelical fervor, children deserved better, and turned that belief into a career that spanned decades and touched millions of lives.
To see Fred Rogers from the beginning is to appreciate what an odd career choice television was for a decidedly square man with, let’s be honest, a weird voice. But his authenticity struck a chord with tender young viewers, and that is because his respect for children is so obvious. You might feel nostalgia for the program you loved as a kid, but as an adult watching this documentary, his message of sincere regard for the seriousness of children’s emotions and experiences is profound and very important.
From the very first episodes, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” addressed such national events as the Vietnam War, because Mister Rogers felt very strongly that children deserve an explanation for scary events. Rather than condescending, he believed felt children’s feelings were as serious as adults’ feelings, and that’s why children loved him. The puppets were pretty crappy, but the sentiment was very real.
Rogers’ personal life is examined through interviews with his wife, children and sister, but the film stops short of a deep dive into their home life. One of his two sons in particular seems conflicted over his upbringing, and states something about the difficulty of living with someone who he says was almost as respected as Jesus Christ. But we get no more gossip from this potentially disgruntled son, and the focus of the film overall is on the public effect of Mister Rogers.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is an unabashed tear-jerker, but it’s not so much manipulative as simply openly emotional. You might start off watching with a sheen of cynicism, but after Fred Rogers looks directly into the camera and tells you the right way to be an adult, it becomes us cynics who seem naïve. He was brave and mature enough to be uncool, constitutionally incapable of irony.
After the first run of his show ended production, and after a less successful turn at adult TV programming, Rogers felt compelled to return to his show because he was so outraged that superheroes, of all things, were influencing children and making them jump off buildings to pretend to fly. He plainly felt Mister Rogers was the only one equal to the task of proper instruction of vulnerable youngsters, and says as much. His contempt for mean-spirited, commercial children’s program is actually humbling, and I feel his eyes on me as I snigger alongside my kids to an episode of “Teen Titans, Go!”
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” does not really shed new light on the legacy of Mister Rogers — it distills it, and reminds us of the gift of his point of view. You might get excited to hear that familiar trolley ding again, or you may simply appreciate this story of a man who dared to take children seriously, and to consider the enormous value that point of view imparts. Like watching an episode of his show, this documentary is just a decent, quiet, meaningful place to spend a bit of quality time, reflecting on the inherent worth of every person and enjoying that earworm of a song, “It’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive.” It is at once obvious, simple and revolutionary.
“Won’t You be My Neighbor?” is currently available to rent.