In the early 1950s, Fred Rogers looked at the burgeoning medium of television and saw in it an opportunity to talk to children in an open and truthful way. This eventually led to the creation of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, a low-tech program (even for that era) in which he used puppets and songs to discuss serious issues he felt kids were curious about. The show was very popular among children, probably thanks to Rogers’ straight-forward, respectful and earnest personality. It aired for the better part of 33 years. The incredibly moving documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? examines Fred Rogers, his life and his career, and, through them, social and political change in America. Despite its evident fondness for Rogers, it never turns into blind praise. It treats him like he treated his young audience: with empathy and honesty. This is one of the best movies of the year.
It focuses on Fred Rogers using interviews with people who knew him, clips from his shows and tons of awesome archival material. There is so much footage of Rogers that he assists in telling his own story, which gives unique insight into his motivations. This helps immensely because he was such a likable and eloquent speaker. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (93 minutes without the end credits) mainly concentrates on his time in the public eye. There is little information here concerning his life before television. The interviewees drop some hints as to what in his upbringing could have led him to become Mr. Rogers, but the film is mostly about his quest to produce helpful and entertaining programming for children.
This is a very uncomplicated movie. It seeks to express how this man tried to bring kindness and love to the world every week through a simple kid’s show. There is absolutely nothing new or particularly creative in director Morgan Neville’s approach. It is just his interviews with Rogers’ friends, family and coworkers mixed with clips of Rogers. The only difference from most other documentaries is the amazing amount of footage he has of his subject. What allows this film to stand out is the combination of the subject himself and the editing by Jeff Malmberg and Aaron Wickenden.
It does not matter how impressive your material is if you are unable to put it together in a manner that maximizes its impact. The purpose of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is to present the real Fred Rogers. They want viewers to be able to see the sincerity and usefulness of his mission. It works as well as it does because the filmmakers always knew exactly what should go when to make their points. The result is a clear picture of this man and his life in a film that gets its point across the same way Rogers himself did: direct and without obvious manipulation. It is pretty extraordinary how powerful that ends up being.
The most important thing I took away from this is that Fred Rogers found success doing something a lot of people have forgotten how to do: showing respect for other people, regardless of their opinions. In recent years, we have become so busy trying to be louder than everyone else that we forget to stop and really listen to what the other person has to say. Fred Rogers got as far as he did because he truly cared about other people. He only wanted to make the world a better place. Those are qualities sorely lacking in today’s public landscape. I do not know if someone like Fred Rogers could even get heard now, or if he would just get drowned out by all the angry voices. What I do know is we could definitely use him. I am not sure if it will make any difference, but Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is the film we need right now.
5 out of 5
Directed by Morgan Neville