At this particular moment, Fred Rogers’ message of love and kindness, dignity and respect and equality and, most of all, his reverence and wonder for childhood ... at this particular moment, that message hits so hard it hurts.
Opening this week at Alamo and the Dundee, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is an exceptionally well-made and moving documentary about the life and work of the icon behind “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
Culling from a treasure trove of archive footage and offering new interviews from Rogers’ family and friends, Oscar-winning director Morgan Neville (“Twenty Feet From Stardom”) paints a warm and loving (but also piercingly intelligent) portrait of a soft-spoken Presbyterian minister who put on a sweater, looked directly into the camera and delighted and enlightened millions of children.
Over nearly 1,000 episodes of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” Rogers couched his core Christian beliefs into a laid-back, secular package, beaming his message to the hearts of millions:
“There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re fine just the way you are.”
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” highlights dozens of poignant, if not heartbreaking, moments in which Rogers connects with children on topics such as death and divorce, disability and the dangers of pretending to be Superman. He has a special affinity for children who have struggled. A clip of Rogers talking to a little boy in a wheelchair gets an end-of-the-movie postscript that will move you to tears.
But by that point, you’ll have already cried so hard you’ve died so it won’t matter.
This movie, with its content, in this context, just sort of pummels you. (The tremendous score from composer Jonathan Kirkscey sure doesn’t hurt in this department.)
It’s an emotional bloodbath. The clip where Rogers appears before the U.S. Senate to save PBS. The scene in which Koko the gorilla signs to Mr. Rogers that “I love you visit.” The moment when a woman comes up to Rogers, telling him that she couldn’t attend preschool as a child because she had a disability. But she watched his show. “Thank you for my preschool,” she tells him, before breaking down sobbing and falling into his arms.
(Excuse me. I have ... something in my eye. I’ll be right back.)
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is first and foremost a marvelously efficient machine made to extract heaving sobs from your increasingly dehydrated body. But it’s also a surprisingly clear-eyed example of media criticism.
The film places “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” into the larger context of children’s television. When Rogers’ show started in 1963, most TV was fast, flashy and stupid. When his show ended in 2001, nearly all TV was even faster, flashier, more stupid.
Over about four decades (it’s the second longest-running children’s show ever, after “Sesame Street”), Rogers and his team made a calm, slow and typically educational program that never compromised its values.
Rogers hated TV, his son notes in the documentary. But he recognized its power and influence, particularly on the developing minds of children.
“What we hear or see on the screen,” he says in an old interview, “is part of who we become.”
Through the documentary’s selected clips of the show, we see that Rogers was not only a bit of a subversive in the style of the show but also in its politics.
This was a program — for children — in which Rogers-voiced puppets named Daniel Tiger and King Friday discussed such things as the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. Where they played out allegories of the Vietnam War that pled for peace. A show wherein Rogers himself shared a swimming pool with his African-American co-star, François Clemmons, in protest against racial segregation.
Because of his kind, quiet manner, it was difficult to see just how bold and brazen Rogers was being.
But did it matter?
Fred Rogers lived long enough to see 9/11. (He died in 2003.) And he lived long enough to feel the weight of an increasingly mediated world — crueler and more divided than he could have imagined.
Through new interviews with Rogers’ widow, Joanne Rogers, we learn that he was feeling doubts near the end of his life.
Did he actually accomplish anything? Did any of it matter? Was he a fraud?
As the doc shows through Fox News clips, a certain sector of the population thought Rogers had accomplished something, something bad: making snowflakes out of multiple generations of viewers. As though Rogers’ message that everyone was special was a call to entitlement and not what it actually was: an attempt to make children feel better about themselves through the core Christian principle of love.
Rogers lived long enough to see these criticisms. To see the mockery and misunderstanding.
At the start of his career, he said that “love is at the root of everything.” By the end of his life, he seemed less sure.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” sits with Rogers’ doubts and itself questions the limits of human kindness and empathy. (Which makes you cry all the harder.)
And yet Neville’s bittersweet approach to Rogers’ work only sharpens the movie’s (and the man’s) moral clarity.
Here was a guy who spent his whole life trying to make the world a little less stupid and a little less cruel. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” continues his good work.