Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a bittersweet portrait of a man who lived a compassionate life free of pretensions, and whose message sadly feels lost in today’s callous world.
For a generation more inclined to remember such carefree explorations as Mr. Rogers’ tour of the crayon factory, it may come as some surprise that a first-season episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” found the denizens of Make-Believe asking such questions as “What does ‘assassination’ mean?” The long-running children’s program premiered on PBS amid one of the modern United States’ most turbulent eras, first appearing on nationwide TV screens at the height of the Vietnam War and only months before the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. For all the sweetness that Fred Rogers exuded throughout his show’s more than three-decade run, the program was consistently unafraid to address heavier issues and help young people process scary events while viewing them through Rogers’ lens of unflappable kindness and love.
Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor? may focus primarily on Rogers’ broadcasting career and eponymous TV show, but it also offers insightful glimpses into his personal life. The documentary’s general lack of tension stems from the simple fact that there was so little conflict between Mr. Rogers, the TV personality, and Fred Rogers, the man. This film may unavoidably serve as hagiography—one of Rogers’ sons admits it wasn’t always easy growing up in the shadow of a virtual “second Christ”—but it nimbly avoids pitfalls of maudlin sentimentalism. That makes for a compelling examination of an increasingly rare example of a man who lived his creed rather than preaching it. Rogers, an ordained minister and lifelong Republican, is intensely refreshing to view in retrospect, even as it makes the current absence within the public sphere of his Zen-like patience and goodwill all the more glaring.
The film frequently takes not-so-subtle jabs at the bombastic vitriol at the highest levels of government. In one of the very first trolley-led journeys into the Neighborhood of Make-Believe segment of his show, Rogers introduces King Friday as an insecure narcissist who fears change and builds a border wall to keep out those deemed undesirable. And there are frequent musings among the film’s talking heads—who include Rogers’ wife, Joanne, his two sons and many former cast and crew members—about what Rogers, who died in 2003, would think of the world now.
Neville includes a section about the recently-retired Rogers filming encouraging messages in the wake of 9/11, given his long-running promotion of his mother’s advice to “look for the helpers” when tragedy strikes. But as Rogers questions whether his efforts will do any good in the face of such devastation, one gets the sense that he had difficulty wrapping his mind around a world that was increasingly becoming unrecognizable to him in the twilight of his life. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine his compassion in today’s society, as the documentary briefly touches upon right-wing pundits basically blaming Rogers for creating a generation of “snowflakes” who believe they are inherently special and unique.
These angles go somewhat underexplored, though it’s difficult to argue that such an invigoratingly warm-hearted film would’ve been improved by including a greater number of venomous soundbites from Fox News. Neville does spend time focusing on a contradiction in Rogers’ support of cast member François Clemmons, who played the neighborhood police officer of the same surname. As post-Civil Rights era racism had led to a movement to keep swimming pools segregated, Mr. Rogers symbolically addressed this by soaking his feet in the same water as Clemmons, an African American, even going so far as to dry the man’s feet afterwards. And yet Clemmons, who is also gay, explains how he wasn’t afforded the same support for his sexual orientation, with Rogers specifically insisting he stay in the closet for the sake of the show. The film chalks this up to a symptom of the era, and it points out that Rogers’ funeral was nevertheless protested by the Westboro Baptist Church bigots for his perceived tolerance of homosexuality. In fact, the documentary even shows footage of interviewer Tom Snyder asking Rogers point-blank, “Are you straight?” This demonstrates that not only was Rogers’ brand of gentleness and kindness largely anathema to entrenched perceptions of hetero-masculinity, but it also questions whether anyone could truly be as genuine in real life as the Mr. Rogers personality was onscreen.
The film also sheds light on some of the TV icon’s idiosyncrasies. His son states that Rogers had difficulty expressing anger, and when he did need to vent, he would often do so in the voice of the crafty Lady Elaine Fairchilde from his show. An avid swimmer, Rogers also frequently weighed himself to ensure he remained precisely 143 lbs., a number that held personal significance to him because the individual digits correspond to the number of letters in the words “I Love You.”
In the corrosive political era in which we currently live, it’s difficult to imagine a world where a humble, earnest man like Fred Rogers could sway a cynical Senate subcommittee chairman to grant PBS $20 million solely through his impassioned testimony about the importance of social and emotional education for children. The footage from this scene feels like a snapshot of a lost era of civility and decorum, and it’s only one of the sequences that makes Won’t You Be My Neighbor? a bittersweet portrait of a man who lived a compassionate life free of pretensions, and whose message sadly feels lost in today’s callous world.