Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)

Directed by Morgan Neville

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I have a running list of movies that make me cry, and you can add Won’t You Be My Neighbor to that list.  It’s not an outright tearjerker, but there are moments clearly meant to tug on your heart strings, and they certainly do.

That shouldn’t surprise you.  This documentary about the very friendly, life-affirming Fred Rogers hits about every note I expected it to.  It offers little we didn’t know, but it does flesh out the portrait of a man many people grew up with as children.  Fred Rogers the person is only one part of the story, as the documentary uses his program as a lens for which to look at the world at large, mostly concerning events between the late sixties up until his death in 2003.

The topics covered include the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, Richard Nixon’s attempt to do away with public television, the Challenger disaster and the September 11th attacks.  The film demonstrates how Rogers tackled these tragedies and explained them delicately to our youngest members of society.

The main point of Rogers’ work is that he wasn’t afraid to talk candidly with children.  Much of what we learn about his philosophy comes from an interview he once gave.  His voice over will suddenly describe something we see onscreen, and for a moment you might forget that he’s not actually right there, with a hand in the film’s production.

The documentary interviews many who were close to Rogers, including his wife and two sons, but we learn the most about him through his own words.  Most of what we learn, however, has less to do with himself and more with how he approaches other people.  He talks of the strength of kids’ feelings, and the importance of letting them know it’s okay to be who you are.  He believed that this affirmation would better allow children a space to grow.

Basically we all need a Mister Rogers in our lives, and for several decades he was there, a touching, kind figure whose near absolute kindness made some suspicious that there had to be something else going on under the surface.  His son earned a sizable audience laugh when he described the difficulties of living with the “second Christ.”

This is a great documentary with plenty of laughs.  Most of those come from the acknowledgement that others were as mystified as we might be by Rogers as a person.  He’s so damn perfect, it seems, that it can be strangely distancing.  Based on the people we meet, Fred Rogers begins to feel like the eye of the storm, surrounded by much more eccentric, even human characters.  While he was something of a blank slate, the type of wholesome, virtuous being who gave so much to so many people, the beautifully flawed people around him let us know it’s okay that we’re not all Fred Rogers.  He was one of a kind, though the film ends on a note asking us to consider how we can be more like Mister Rogers.

Because of the wide scope of the film, we don’t get a much better picture of Fred Rogers over the course of our viewing.  He remains as much of an enigma as he once was, if only because it feels as though we dove into his psyche and were no more the wiser.  But the film pleases and makes you feel all good about yourself and about humanity.  The documentary has the same effect as an episode of Mister Rogers’ own tv show.  It’s not too concerned with Fred the person because Fred himself wasn’t very concerned with Fred the person.

Through Fred Rogers the documentary paints a portrait of the best parts of humanity.  He remains a symbol more than a person, and by the end you’re left feeling that this wasn’t so much a story about Rogers but rather a story about what we can all be.

Up Next: Away We Go [Script Only], Beatriz at Dinner (2017), Primal Fear (1996)

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