In a year where even some of the best documentaries have been hindered by unshakable, reverential worship of their subjects, Won’t You be My Neighbor? stands out. Not because producer/director Morgan Neville doesn’t show supreme respect for the life and work of Fred Rogers, but because Neville manages to highlight the complexities of his character in a way that – though it might not seem possible – serves to elevate the great educator and television host’s legacy.
At the dawn of television, Mister Rogers, as he was affectionately known to children across America, was as unique and curious a figure as he would be if he got his start in the industry today. A Presbyterian minister who saw the value in using TV as a medium for education long before most, Won’t You be My Neighbor? reveals how a quiet, slow speaking, deceptively simple man became one of the most important and iconic figures to ever grace the screen. From a troubled childhood plagued with illness, to his reception of a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Emmys, every step is laid out thoughtfully and insightfully.
For millions of viewers, the documentary is sure to inspire pangs of nostalgia, and even some melancholy. Having played such a fundamental part in their upbringing, the sight of Mister Rogers walking through the front door of his home, hanging his cardigan, and singing the theme song to his 31 season-long show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood might feel akin to watching old home movies. Yet there is an undoubted sense of wonder and joy to be found in the film even for those who know little about Rogers’ work going in.
There’s a disarming wholesomeness to the man that can’t be ignored, nor denied. Few represent such a precise balance between integrity, authority, and vulnerability, and fewer still have managed to translate that into stories that educate children, and move adults in equal measure.
There’s no better example of this than the time when Rogers spoke to the United States Senate Subcommittee on Communications in an attempt to maintain funding for the Public Broadcasting Service. Many may have already seen Rogers’ speech to subcommittee chairman Senator Pastore online, but Won’t You be My Neighbor? contextualises it in a way that shows just how tremendous his feat on that day truly was. The same goes for a range of other memorable moments, from his addressing of the Robert Kennedy assassination to the heartrending performance of “Sometimes I Wonder if I’m a Mistake”.
Rogers is remembered, his son half-jokes, as “the second Christ”, but Neville portrays him as just as human as the rest of us. He would use the voice of his character Lady Elaine to pull his kids in line, struggling to discipline them personally and, despite his formal appearance, would often play practical jokes while on set. He washed his feet alongside black co-star Francois Clemmons on screen – an act considered socially unacceptable at the time – but when he found out Clemmons was gay, encouraged him to marry a woman to protect the show (the marriage would quickly fail, and Rogers eventually came to support Clemmons’ sexual preferences).
Yes, Rogers was as human as the rest of us, but that’s what made him all the more extraordinary.
“Television has the chance of building a real community out of an entire country”, he declares in one of the interviews seen throughout Won’t You be My Neighbor? That wasn’t just a whimsical statement; it was the belief that drove Rogers’ entire life and career. Despite everything that dared work against him, Rogers persevered, and left an indelible mark on millions.
Neville captures that wonderfully in a documentary that deserves to be watched by all. It is emotional, it is well made, and it is inspiring. We may never see the likes of Fred Rogers again, but that’s not something to despair about. Everything Mister Rogers did, he did not to make us realise how special he was, but how special we are, and the difference everyone is capable of making in the world.