***1/2 out of ****
(for some thematic elements and language)
Released: June 8, 2018 limited; June 22 expands
Runtime: 94 minutes
Directed by: Morgan Neville
Starring: Fred Rogers, Joanne Rogers, François Clemmons, Joe Negri, David Newell, Betty Aberlin
Fred Rogers was too good for this world.
That, no doubt, is exactly why God placed him here. It’s also why we need him now, even long after his passing, perhaps more than ever.
Oscar-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom) has made that possible in a new documentary that captures the humble purity of Mr. Rogers, in a way that humbles us all, waking us up to the humanity that we’ve lost.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, titled after Rogers’ open-hearted catchphrase invitation, is a clarion call to innocence. It’s a persuasive portrait that we must not only protect our kids and make a better world for them but, to do so, we must – as Fred Rogers did himself – become more like them.
The iconic children’s program Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood debuted on PBS in 1968, premiering concurrently with the rise of the counter culture. Now fifty years later, in the midst of our toxic ideological divide in which self-righteous anger and profanity-laced bile are the most affirmed (and virtue-signaled) tenets, Fred Rogers’ ideals are the counter culture.
That’s exactly why Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – the new documentary about the life, work, and legacy of Fred Rogers – resonates so powerfully. His values, which once seemed so square, are now the universal antidote, balm, and hope to a popular culture that bullies, demonizes, ostracizes, and shames.
They’re values rooted in Rogers’ Christian faith (he nearly became a Presbyterian minister), a defining core that Neville doesn’t sidestep or marginalize. A pastor friend refers to the long-running series as Rogers’ ministry, the set his holy ground, in which he wore a sweater instead of a collar.
Indeed, “neighbor” is at the root of Christian praxis (or, at least, it should be). It incarnates the eternal abstract, from The Golden Rule to the Good Samaritan to so many Scriptures about our treatment and embrace of the “neighbor” (some you can read here).
It’s from this ethos, and not merely a quaint platitude, that Fred Rogers invited everyone to be his neighbor. He gave the invitation out of love and a desire to fulfill the responsibility that comes with it.
Through new interviews with people close to Rogers (his widow, his sons, cast and crew, and more) to a deep well of archival footage, Rogers and others share his heart, intentions, and philosophies. We see how this man could address life’s harshest realities in a Neighborhood of Make Believe, from tragic current events to universal fears, doubts, and anxieties.
He also showed how a a medium like television could be a force for good, not just entertainment or, even worse, a numbing presence that was morally destructive. (It’s a standard we need to heed again in our social media age.)
Yes, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a hagiography, but it’s also an honest biography. It’s the kind of portrait you get when the truth is as good or better than the squeaky clean public persona.
Nevertheless, Neville explores Rogers’ own self-doubts and insecurities (which Fred documented), the kind he dedicated his whole life to helping kids overcome. They were often expressed through his puppet alter egos, most prominently in Daniel Tiger.
Fred Rogers may be our pop culture Patron Saint, but he was still very much human, grappling with his purpose and the efficacy of his life’s work, especially as society became more coarse over time, not less.
While there aren’t any dark, secret flaws revealed (because, by all accounts, there weren’t any), there were struggles and tests, perhaps none more so than when one of his cast members came out as gay. Yet even potentially divisive beliefs such as those were broached with grace, and moral impasses that threatened to break the bonds of friendship were ultimately reconciled with love.
That, too, is part of Mr. Rogers’ legacy. That, too, is the example we need now. The pure decency of this man is beautifully overwhelming.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a quiet, simple, and profound film, just like its subject. A glance at my Twitter feed doesn’t give me hope that it’ll heal our country any time soon. I see people praise the film and the man in one tweet and then hurl profane, malicious wrath in the next (“F— civility.” being one that sums them up), but that just further illustrates why we need a movie, a man, an example like this right now, one of such stark truth and clarity.
Fifteen years after his death, Fred Rogers is still showing us the way forward.
Many (even those who embrace Rogers’ worldview) will say his ideals are too passive, too Pollyanna, and not enough for what we face. I’m sympathetic to that cynicism, but that’s exactly why we must have the courage and resolve to live them out anyway.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a North Star that cuts through the noxious noise of our polarized, politicized, and tribal times. Living out its example starts by sincerely asking its titular question to everyone we meet. Won’t you, please?