“The greatest thing that we can do is to help somebody know that they’re loved, and capable of loving.”
In purely technical terms, we have been without Fred Rogers for fifteen years. I know, it surprised me too; although by the time of his passing in 2003 he had, for me, long since drifted out of sight, if never quite out of mind. The mind is funny that way, as I learned while watching Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, a spellbinding new documentary that does generations perhaps suffering similar problems of perception, in addition to those not yet born, the courtesy of presenting the man and his work on roughly equal footing. Both are nothing less than inspirational. Technicality has no place in the realm of feelings, of course, and so those fifteen years might well be millennia to some – whether or not they are wholly cognizant of the loss – so difficult is his absence, so great is the distance from there to here, so dark and cold it can be to sit, day after day with insufficient comfort, in the shadow of a sun obscured. Yeah, my trusty house brand of hyperbole shrinks in the face of the legacy of Fred Rogers, revolutionary humanist, behaviorist, and child advocate, who on both sides of the screen was possibly as open, thoughtful, nurturing, and compassionate an individual as ever left a significant mark on humankind. To those who’d reflexively roll their eyes at the mere suggestion, attached to the revival of interest accompanying this movie like a Twitter pseudo-profundity that writes itself, that the world as it currently stands is in dire need of just the sort of gentle, constructive, inclusive, incisive wisdom and comment that Mr. Rogers provided for almost four decades, I can only shrug my shoulders and lament that, despite all his contributions to the public sphere, our time spent together was so limited. It’s a lament made on my behalf and on yours.
This film, made with the enthusiastic and generous cooperation of his family, friends, and colleagues, seeks, successfully, to close that gap, and is almost certainly the closest we’ll ever come to a comprehensive portrait of Mr. Rogers the uncommon thinker and driven educator, Mr. Rogers the reserved minister turned unlikely television star turned trusted national counselor, and, finally – still, perhaps purposely, at something of an arm’s length – Mr. Rogers the warm, quiet family man. Though each aspect is probably deserving of ninety minutes of its own consideration, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? suggests strongly that they are indivisible, just another facet of the gem. A cornucopia of archival footage interspersed with modern interviews from Rogers’ wife and two sons, his friends, co-stars, and co-workers, the film seems to exist half on the screen and half in our memories, much as Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood took care for its young viewers with the charming but instructive delineation between real life and make believe. As a grown man quite certain that, despite any lingering personal or philosophical affection, my memories of watching PBS in the late seventies and early eighties had faded like so many oversaturated photographs, it was fairly astounding to see the set of Mr. Rogers’ little TV apartment again, to effortlessly conjure the words, or at least cadence and delivery, of songs I hadn’t consciously thought about in my entire living memory, or internalize his engaged but unhurried demeanor as if rejoining a conversation tabled for almost forty years. There is no question the movie plays much differently for those who can call on any personal experience with Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood than for those who cannot. Believe you me, for viewers in the first camp, this movie will fill in blanks that you weren’t even aware existed.
To the degree that Won’t You Be My Neighbor? has a narrator, it is Rogers himself, and his constant presence underlines crucial elements that set the documentary apart from a more by-the-numbers righteous canonization: the facility with which Fred Rogers thoughtfully articulates deceptively tricky subject matter, and the intimacy and obvious affection with which he engages his audience. The movie’s strategy is to envelop its viewer in an approximation of the warm feeling that Mr. Rogers evoked in children. Neighbor begins with him seated at a piano, musing to an unnamed audience on the relative difficulty in piano playing of certain modulations (F to F Sharp instead of C to F), and how that might apply to the various changes in a young child’s life. We are instantly hooked. From seemingly the moment a hopeful epiphany first altered his course from Episcopal seminary student to entry level children’s programming gopher on Pittsburgh local television, Rogers made a habit of filming himself in the act of pontificating, on life, on love, and, ceaselessly, on how to go about responsibly but creatively nurturing and protecting children, which was his life’s mission. I involuntarily choked up watching him walking around the iconic Neighborhood set, doing ten variations of a single voice in his work as a sock puppeteer, sharing tender remembrances and anecdotes with cast and crew members who appear in his stead in the film as impossibly old-looking interview subjects. Neighbor is littered with this behind closed doors footage, often astonishing, if, for a start, in just how much it revealed the conspicuous absence of closed doors in his life.
For a man famous for his benign, albeit persuasive, way of communicating, Fred Rogers verily overflowed with passion. Rogers did eventually become an Episcopalian minister, one whose natural convictions clearly influenced his work despite the paucity of references to most anything overtly religious once the camera rolled. He was also an excellent pianist who only occasionally played on the show, though his innate musicality and stealth theatricality filtered down into the numerous songs he wrote and various puppet characters he inhabited. Director Morgan Neville structures his documentary cleverly, moving between the filmed show we remember, behind the scenes footage, modern interviews, and straightforward Rogerian soliloquies tracked by Jonathan Kirkscey’s alternately peppy and languid piano score. The intention, as I read it, was to feel as if Rogers himself was somehow playing along in the background, so that he might be present even when he wasn’t physically on screen. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? similarly emphasizes mood over moments at almost every turn, though several resonate especially nonetheless. They are all interactions. We are shocked to learn that the show, upon its debut in the historically fractious year of 1968, spent its first week on the air leveling with its young audience about the realities of war and death, later even somberly but clear-headedly revisiting the subject after Bobby Kennedy’s assassination. Whether interacting with a plucky, wheelchair-bound little boy days before his spinal fusion surgery or stumping on behalf of Public Television before a Nixonian Congress hellbent on cutting its funding off at the neck, Rogers was a reassuring yet authoritative voice with a focus on magnanimous child advocacy that could not be shaken or shifted. That congressional testimony, seven minutes in which he forges an unlikely ally out of a crusty, scowling, pinchpenny senator straight out of Central Casting, is surely worth tracking down in full on Youtube. Compressed, in this context, it is a knockout piece of oratory.
Particularly affecting and occasionally overwhelming are the scenes of him interacting with teeming rooms of inevitably enthralled children – addressing each one at a time, and speaking directly to his or her level and perspective with infinite patience and genuine interest, free of the least whiff of judgment or condescension. The voice and manner are immediate and unmistakable, of course, regardless of the venue or context, and it’s not like there was ever an army of especially ambitious plagiarists rushing to appropriate his methods and principles and philosophy as their own. At the same time, Mr. Rogers was such a creature and creation of television, which he largely abhorred except for its potential as a teaching tool, that it is somewhat remarkable to watch him in his more candid moments – playing with his kids, joking with his TV crew, hugging his wife, momentarily forgetting how to tie his shoes, ambling in and out of the ankle-high surf at an unnamed beach – just being himself. The wide speculation, never quite confirmed, that timid but big-hearted puppet Daniel Striped-Tiger was Rogers’ alter ego is explored thoughtfully and results in several heart-in-throat moments as we hear the acclaimed educator speaking bare and luminous truth to his young audience that might somehow, despite all we’ve witnessed, have been too close or personally painful to articulate in his own voice.
Which, I suppose, begs the question of who was Mr. Rogers? Neighbor loses its firm hold on the viewer in its final third, as it races to debunk altogether too many absurd internet musings and address unsolicited hot take criticisms leveled at Rogers in the years since his death, namely that his abiding belief in making children feel special somehow unwittingly spawned a generation of entitled whiners, unwilling to contribute to the greater good and unworthy to indulge in its spoils. Was he uncomfortable around gay people? Wasn’t he hiding something behind that impossibly benevolent facade? Arguably the best among many reasons to see Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is to simply hear Rogers hold forth at length and in his own words on the fragility and endless possibility of childhood, and our responsibility as parents and neighbors to create an environment where children can feel safe and express their feelings without fear. Kids in 1988 didn’t know they were watching a rerun from twenty years earlier any more than I had so suspected a decade earlier, and, I’m sure, hardly cared. To see Mr. Rogers’ staff trying to build him up as he prepared off-camera for a brief live PSA in the wake of the 9/11 attacks was, indeed, to witness a hero shaken to his core, wracked with uncertainty and personal turmoil. The same man who told us to always, “look for the helpers” momentarily appeared helpless himself, to comfort or advise those who needed him most. He looked lost. Then he composed himself and soldiered on. Who was Mr. Rogers? The unsurprising answer, from most everyone with an informed opinion, is that he was exactly the man you thought he was, the man you saw on television. For better and then much better, and only occasionally worse, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? shows Fred Rogers the loving, striving, questioning human being as he was at any given moment the camera rolled. It defuses much of the mystery but never surrenders the spell.
A documentary can’t ever outrun or even comfortably exist outside of its subject. As you’ve no doubt intuited by now, it can be difficult when presented with this sort of sparkling remembrance to comment responsibly in a way that doesn’t edge over from the realm of movie review into outright eulogy. To the film’s credit, despite no absence of moving documentaries on other worthy subjects from which to choose, that temptation for me simply doesn’t arise all that often. I do have a well-established tendency to shed a tear or more in the face of drama concerning great passion or sacrifice. It’s not something I try to hide or downplay. I’ve never minded leaving a theater feeling wrung out if the emotion was earned and genuine. I cried in some form or fashion from approximately the first minute of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? to the last. I laughed too, of course, and smiled a great deal, and my imagination ranged restless, far and wide, in a way that I’m sure would appeal to Fred Rogers and be worth at least a conspiratorial smile from him in kind. But still. Had I lost much more fluid, I might’ve needed an I.V. Nobody walks into this kind of movie looking for their understanding of the subject to be ruthlessly challenged. Expanded, rather, or, maybe, just reinforced. Neville has produced a powerful, imperfect, generally lovely portrait of a man for whom few, even his critics, had a disparaging word. As the end credits ran with the familiar song he’d sing at the end of every show, I reflexively waited for its coda to appear…
“And I’ll be back / when the day is new / and I’ll have more ideas for you…”
“And you’ll have things you’ll want to talk about / I will too.”
Probably best that it didn’t, though for some ninety minutes, I watched as raptly as one of those toddlers, as raptly, I assume, as the toddler I used to be but had forgotten. I was still never quite at ease around this most generous and welcoming of human beings. The film made me feel his absence too acutely, too relentlessly. That is its burden. It also made me feel his presence, if only in the form of memory made manifest. That, in the end, is its achievement, and a real gift.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” (2018) 3.5/4 stars