Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood has been a cultural touchstone for generations of children, your humble blagger included. In Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor, the edifying force that is Fred Rogers resounds in every scene – despite the man’s typically reserved candor.
The documentary is very much a simple exploration of Fred Rogers and his outlook on life, filtering almost everything through the man’s attitude towards children. Mr. Rogers believes that children ought to be protected, sure, but more importantly, they ought to be respected and treated as though they are valuable in their own rights.
The documentary simplifies its style, collecting old sequences of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, archival footage and interviews with the man himself, and current “talking heads” interviews with people who played an important role in Rogers’s life. Clips from the show itself are often used to highlight a simple point or stance that Roger’s felt was important to convey to children, and often would reflect current events of the time.
Interviews and archival footage detail the struggles and doubts that Rogers often felt behind the camera. And most of the interviews exist to add context, share some fun story, or reminisce about Fred in some touching way.
The story generally unfolds chronologically, starting with Roger’s education and early forays into public television and following that with his esteemed children’s show, other projects, and late life. One particularly powerful scene encapsulates the philosophy of the film and is pulled straight from Capra, certainly too saccharine and on-the-nose to be greenlit in a Hollywood boardroom nowadays.
Still, this happpened:
The scene: Richard Nixon (so often on the right side of history) was about to pull $20 million in funding from the budget that was meant for public broadcasting. The chairman of the subcommittee, Sen. John O. Pastore, had heard days of testimony and had sat unyielding and unimpressed. Enter Fred Rogers:
With a simple message that caring is important and that feelings are “mentionable and manageable”, Rogers turned a professional cynic into a teddybear, and earned $20 million in funding for PBS to boot.
This testimony is included in the film (slightly editied) and it is far from the only tear-jerking moment.
Like Fred Rogers himself, Won’t You Be My Neighbor seems simple, charming, and forever warm. But there is a complexity to the persona of Fred Rogers, and the film follows suit. It reveals a man who was always wondering if he was good enough, was doing enough to help. Even Fred Rogers had his doubts – and maybe that is why he was so good at helping others through theirs.
Of course, Fred Rogers was not immune from the recent groundswell of cynicism. His message that every child was worthwhile, that every person’s life important was easily subverted into the idea that everyone was special. Cries of “snowflake” and “spoiled Millenial” are not far behind, and there is a particular cabal who is quick to chide Rogers for effecting this cult of unearned importance.
But the message of Fred Rogers, and of Wont You Be my Neighbor, is not that everyone deserves unearned praise and repetitive reassurace and coddling. It is that everyone struggles at some point, everyone feels alone, and everyone should be taught that it is okay to be afraid, angry, sad, or whatever else. And, just maybe, it is important to help children through such confusing emotions at a time when they are most vulnerable.