What it's about: Fred Rogers created, produced, and starred in the public broadcasting series Mister Rogers' Neighborhood for 31 seasons, 912 episodes in total. An ordained minister, Rogers spread his simple messages of love, kindness, and self-worth to children across the country through the television screen. But he also used his platform to teach children about emotionally complex issues like race, divorce, and death in a sensitive way. His legacy has lived on in the hearts and minds of all who grew up with him as their guiding light, even as the media landscape and world at large seems to value his spirit less and less.
Though I'm well within the age range of someone who grew up with Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, it wasn't a program I remember watching regularly -- I was more into action cartoons and Nickelodeon game shows, the kind of content Rogers wasn't a big fan of [I turned out OK]. Of course, his influence has become much bigger than the show, a genuine cultural touchstone. Still, I was interested in watching Won't You Be My Neighbor? as someone who doesn't have an emotional connection to him, knowing that those who do have responded incredibly well to the film. Would I be struck in the same way without the nostalgia?
Mostly, yes. Won't You Be My Neighbor? is an extraordinarily well made documentary. It is exceptionally edited. It features a fantastically moving score. The footage, including episodes of the show, archival interviews, and behind-the-scenes, creates a real intimate base.
Morgan Neville is entrenched as one of the best documentarians working today, but I've never loved one of his films. To me, they all have limitations because of his style. 20 Feet from Stardom [which won an Oscar], for example, is a great and moving profile of artists that don't get recognition, but it is a piece of pop filmmaking -- Neville doesn't typically do anything interesting with the form and uses a very mainstream approach. This isn't bad, the docs I tend to really fall for have a sharper edge. Ultimately, this style works for a loving profile of a man with little controversy. In fact, when the film brushes up against potential conflict, it doesn't quite fit.
I'm not sure how better it would have made Won't You Be My Neighbor?, if it should have at all, but it pulls away from three potentially difficult aspects of Rogers' life: the conservative media retroactively bashing his message that every child is special, Rogers asking an employee to stay in the closet, and rumors about Rogers' own sexual orientation [and, to a lesser extent, if he was really this kind of man away from the cameras]. It is undoubtedly important to touch on these aspects of his story in order to avoid being a total puff piece, but they come in so late in the film and feel pretty unresolved questions.
Similarly, Won't You Be My Neighbor? doesn't spend all that much time and focus on any one topic or issue. It ultimately works out fine as a pastiche of his message.
The most effective footage used in the film are a few unidentified interviews with Rogers late in his career. Unsurprisingly, Rogers gives perfect context to his message and his work. His passion really comes across. It must have made Neville's work in building the themes of the film incredibly easy.
Of the various talking heads that pop up, the most insightful are a few who worked on the show, as they knew how the man worked the most and have plenty of fun stories. One particular gem is a man who worked on the exclusively 70s-style hippie crew, people who couldn't be more different from Rogers in terms of politics, style, or mentality. The love between them, though, built strong quickly and Rogers wasn't so out of place with the rough-and-tumble crew based on some of the stories that are shared.
One nice touch I really liked is adding cards with episode numbers and premiere dates before notable moments from the show. Neville doesn't over-use it, either.
Won't You Be My Neighbor? is undeniably at its best simply watching Rogers. Seeing him interact with children, seeing the landmark moments of his show, seeing him have fun or be serious. It is a really tender portrait. I loved the man without knowing all that much about him, really. When the film strives to make bigger cultural points, it does so concisely and compellingly. But the biggest joys of Won't You Be My Neighbor? are the simple ones.