9.5 out of 10
Directed by Morgan Neville
Won’t You Be My Neighbor Review:
These are strange times.
Yes, that is a vast understatement, but no less valid. Too simple, perhaps. Too pat. Not a lot of flourish or noise. But still, in its intrinsic nature, true.
Fred Rogers would tackle complicated moral issues in the same way. Simply, without fanfare, quietly, letting the spaces between the words breathe. It’s in those spaces that conversations begin, where thoughts come alive, where inspiration and love can both grow and blossom. It’s a place we don’t expect to find children; they are fiery balls of energy and emotion, and it takes a lot of parental ability to be able to harness that heat, or at the very least, focus it away from themselves so that the parents can get some work done. So in the very moment that television made it possible, parents plopped their kids in front of it, in the hopes that they at least would be learning something, anything of value. That’s an awful lot of responsibility to put on a mechanical device, and those people behind the programming so often failed to live up to that responsibility, instead adding to the cacophony already blasting its way through those children’s minds. TV didn’t have much use for something that couldn’t sell or market itself, that couldn’t keep the wheels of those advertising dollars turning.
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood wasn’t an alternative to that nuclear blast of advertising so much as it was an island of respite from it. From the very first moments of the show, Miser Rogers would enter, singing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” while he removed his jacket and shoes, letting children everywhere know that, in those moments, everything was going to be okay. Those thoughts, those ideas that made you who you are were just fine by Mister Rogers, and he would listen intently to each and every one of them. Sometimes he would tackle the subjects of the day, as he did with Robert Kennedy’s assassination, because children have questions and those questions are just as valid and relevant as any adult’s. Sometimes he would play with puppets and give voice to the uncertainties and concerns that every child has. He would do this so well because those same uncertainties and concerns were his own as well. Mister Rogers would have a variety of different people from all walks of life on his show, and through that vast diversity, his show would let children dip their toes into a enormous, changing world in a way that was never overwhelming. Other PBS shows like Sesame Street or The Electric Company would educate in their way, but none of them would make that effort to speak to children on their own level, look them in the eye, and show children their true value and worth, day after day after day.
Morgan Neville’s amazing documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, is more a celebration than it is an in-depth, warts-and-all examination of just who this quiet, slowly speaking man was – perhaps because there were very few, if any, warts to be found. His impact as a public figure cannot be overstated; he likely saved public broadcasting during the Nixon years when budget cuts threatened to dismantle it, and the many years of his show certainly took root in the many children-now-adults who watched it. An ordained Presbyterian minister and lifelong Republican, Fred Rogers would throughout his life insist on treating everyone he knew and worked with with respect and dignity, even when it may have clashed with his worldview. When one of the cast members divorced his wife and came out, Fred Rogers, at first and in the manner of the times, did not know how to respond except to tell the cast member that he could not be on the show if he frequented gay establishments, but even then, Rogers traveled the road of empathy and understanding, and in later years told that cast member that he loved him. Neville isn’t very interested in looking for the seedy nature of Fred Rogers because there is legitimately none to be found. He was that rarity – the genuine article.
The film interviews many people, from Rogers’ wife and children (one of his sons states that life sometimes wasn’t easy living with “the second Christ” but he is not bitter about his father at all), to the cast and crew, to the people whose many lives he touched along the way. At times the film is very funny, especially in the candid nature of some of the interviews; while there are no scandals to speak of, Rogers was certainly a man who knew a good joke when he heard it, and he could get angry and testy when the occasion called for it. He was human like everyone else, but Won’t You Be My Neighbor has a power to it that cannot be denied, especially in the context and backdrop of today’s world.
Kindness feels like a revolutionary act these days. Kindness takes work. Kindness requires empathy, patience, understanding, and a willingness to listen. Fred Rogers wielded kindness every moment, every day of his life, on his television show, and out in the world. I don’t much know what Fred Rogers would make of the world of today, but I guarantee you, for a fact, that he would not be standing idly by, even through any misgivings or doubts. He would sing as he did it, and if these times demand that I carry a weapon, then my weapon will be kindness. I will wield it with love in my heart. This is one of the best films of the year.