REVIEW: “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”

Fredposter

Like millions of others, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” is forever etched into my childhood memories. For me it was sitting in my grandmother’s living room watching as the show’s unassuming and unlikely star walked through the door of his low budget set and welcomed me into his world. Day after day I would watch him, even as an older kid outside of what some might call the target audience. That’s because I really liked Mister Rogers himself and I genuinely loved being in his neighborhood.

It was that type of relationship Fred McFeely Rogers yearned to establish with children over the course of three decades of programming. The new documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” is an insightful and heartwarming portrait of this remarkable man who had an authentic heart of gold and would become a truly unique television and cultural icon.

Academy Award winning documentarian Morgan Neville offers us the chance to gaze into the life and legacy of Fred Rogers (1928-2003). Neville’s film is a near perfect mix of biographical sketches and ministerial philosophies which guided Rogers. The film moves swiftly and fluidly between the two, revealing much through Rogers’ own words. We also hear from his family, particularly his wife Joanne and his two sons James and John, along with several of those who worked close with him.

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One of my favorite elements of the film is seeing the genesis of Rogers’ almost otherworldly compassion. We learn he was born into a wealthy household but his life was far from trouble-free. As an overweight child he was often the target of bullying. He also experienced a lot of illness, much of which left him in quarantine. During these times of loneliness he retreated into his imagination which helped him deal with his feelings. He never forgot these childhood experiences and they ultimately fed his uncanny abilities to sympathize and relate to children on levels few could.

The roots of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” dates back to 1953 when he started a show on Pittsburgh public television station WQED. It would eventually become a national broadcast and a signature show on PBS. In its most popular form the half-hour program ran from 1968 until 2000 with only a three year hiatus between 1976 and 1979.

Neville highlights Rogers’ conviction that with television children were treated more as a marketing demographic than young people with their own complex feelings. Therefore his shows often addressed troubling topics or events – the Vietnam War, the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, racism, depression, etc. Rogers believed children shouldn’t be left to their own devices when trying to comprehend these issues. He sought to engage them in ways unseen in most children’s television entertainment.

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The film also shows Rogers’ advocacy for public broadcasting. In 1969 and facing serious budget cuts, Rogers appeared before the United States Senate Subcommittee on Communications. In six short minutes of testimony, Rogers so moved hard-nosed Rhode Island Senator (and subcommittee chairman) John Pastore that he granted the funding on the spot. Neville includes this entire exchange in one of the film’s most inspirational segments.

When I think of the political discourse of today, the incivility and lack of respect, it feels as if Fred Rogers and his vision are from a different planet and foreign from anything we see today. In that way “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” is both sad and beautiful. It highlights this special man’s uniquely rare empathy and sincerity, only occasionally projecting interpretations. It’s hard to watch the film and not yearn for the kind of compassion and spirit he exuded.

After watching the documentary I spent quite some time mulling over my feelings. The one thing that kept coming to mind was that I really miss Mister Rogers. I was reminded of how easy it was for me to forget the impact he had on my childhood. He was an ordained Presbyterian minister, a lifelong Republican, a devoted husband and a loving father. But also, for over 900 episodes, he was my friend, my teacher, and my television neighbor.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

26 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”

  1. Hey Keith! I didn’t grow up w/ ‘Mister Rogers’ but I’m intrigued to see this one. I love your last paragraph there, sounds like he’s someone who left a lasting impact to his audiences. We need more people like him w/ strong convictions, but equally strong compassion.

    • It’s interesting (and a sign of this being a good documentary) but I didn’t realize quite how much I missed Mister Rogers. Also I had me reflecting back on just how much time I spent in his television neighborhood. That can be easy to forget as time goes by.

      Hope you get a chance to see it. It’s a great watch if for nothing else to remind us of just how far a little kindness can go.

  2. This movie is very critical of TV and especially children’s TV throughout Fred Rogers’ time. Rogers comes across as thinking there weren’t any good TV for children other than his own show. This is wrong. It’s odd that ‘Sesame Street’ is not mentioned at any point in this movie. Even in the 1950’s and 60’s, there were plenty of really good children shows that used puppets like ‘Captain Kangaroo’ and ‘The Shari Lewis Show’ but again this documentary makes no mention of those shows, so we don’t get a proper context here of the TV landscape. Plus, Rogers had a gay friend but he never talked about homosexuality on his show, never in the 30+ years of his show, not even in his final year of 2001, despite same-sex marriage being an issue in the 2000 election. For him not to address that issue shows a kind of cowardice on his part and a kind of homophobia and bigotry that even good-natured people can still foster.

    • Very interesting takes on it. First I never had the impression that Rogers believed ALL children’s television was bad other than his. I believe he felt the bulk of it was going in the wrong direction especially some of the most popular. As for not mentioning Sesame Street or Captain Kangaroo (both of which I remember very well), it didn’t bother me especially since this was a biography of him. As for not addressing homosexuality, I certainly don’t have enough information to brand him with labels such as coward, bigot, or homophobic simply because he didn’t bring up the issue on his show. Especially when you have the same gay friend you reference who knew him so much better than me give a much different testimony. I do think the filmmakers try to project that discussion into the film without a lot of information. Perhaps Rogers struggled with that issue. Many people do. But when his overarching message is one of compassion and kindness, I think everyone fits into that category.

      • This film has montages of other children’s programs. Those montages include certain programs, which paint a very one-sided picture of the TV landscape that I didn’t think was fair. And I would say that an overarching message of compassion and kindness is the message of a lot of Christians who on the other side say that homosexuality is a sin and a homosexual is going to Hell if one practices it. You can love your neighbor but still think he’s going to Hell. You can still love your neighbor and condemn his actions. You can be kind and still believe that a person will be punished in the afterlife. And, when I call him a coward, it’s in regards to his TV show. He talked about RFK’s assassination and the Vietnam War, but where was his special episode on the HIV and AIDS crisis affecting gay men in the 80’s? Where was his compassion for them in terms of what he put on screen?

      • So why stop at that one cause? Was he a coward for not addressing every single other cause/issue that other people are most passionate about? I’m not willing to call him a coward simply because he didn’t cover every single issue out there.

  3. Lovely review and tribute to him, Keith. I was sitting right there on the living room floor in the late 60s as a small child enjoying his neighborhood. I remember Miss Kitty (or was she a tiger?)’s voice and liking how calming he was. I’m sure I’ll see it — who doesn’t like Mr. Rogers? He’s as close to a saint as I’ve ever known.

    • Oh Cindy, I rode that trolley into the Neighborhood of Make Believe so many times. It was such a unique show, different from anything else out there. He was so one-on-one with the camera. It made it personal even though he was speaking to millions of other kids. Oh I hope you get to see it. Anxious to get your take.

    • I hope you can see it such. It’s such a lovely portrait of Rogers. It’s also a well made documentary. Seeing “Whitney” tomorrow. Hope it is as good.

  4. I didn’t watch as much Mr. Rogers when I was a kid, but I had seen enough to want to see this movie. It was so well done, it warmed my heart, and it gave me back just a tiny bit of hope in humanity! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it

    • Great to read we share such enthusiasm for this doc. I can honestly say I was transported at times. It is so well done and I love how it looks at him from several different perspectives – father, husband, co-worker, advocate, etc. Great movie.

      • I was especially taken in by his back story. I had no idea that he was bullied as a kid and that it played such a big part in his compassion for children. Such an amazing story!

      • Same here. That and his constant illnesses which left him alone a lot. Amazing how those trials can shape us into who we are.

  5. If you don’t want to call Rogers a coward, that’s fine, but the documentary never distinguishes why he chose the topics that he chose. But, Clemmons was told NOT to go back to the gay bar or else he couldn’t be on the show. What was that if not cowardice? Do I expect Fred Rogers to address every issue? Well, yes, at least the major ones that make the national news! He’s the one who opened that door by covering Vietnam, RFK and 9/11. At one point, Rogers looks into the camera and says he’s the only one who knows what’s best for children. If he’s going to take a supercilious position, then my criticism is not unwarranted.

    • What if he covered none? What if he never stepped into the arena of major national and world events? Would he still be a coward? Has any show addressed every conflict/event/catastrophe? If not, are they cowards? It seems as if your saying he’s guilty simply because he chose to address a handful of major news issues but not everything. I don’t think any show or movie should be judged on an all-or-nothing scale. And I still don’t buy that he believed he was ‘the only one’. The movie even reference those he sought guidance from and inspired him.

      • Yes, there have been shows that address every conflict/event/catastrophe. One such example is the Oprah Winfrey Show. Obviously, if a show has been on the air for 30 plus years that gives it the opportunity to do so. Oprah was only on for 25 years, but she still managed to do it. She’s certainly no coward. She wasn’t a Republican or a minister, but she was a woman of faith and religion. Obviously, her format allowed for those open discussions. But, to answer your question, yes, if he never covered these things, he would be a coward but at least he would be consistent. Ultimately, my criticism is based on the fact that he specifically told a gay person on his show NOT to go to a gay bar, which means he specifically made it an issue with regard to his show. For him to do that and even after 30 years NOT to rectify it on the show feels cowardly to me. So, it’s not an all-or-nothing scale. He’s the one who put homophobia on the scale. I simply would have appreciated a counter-balance to that scale.

      • Comparing the Oprah Winfrey show to a program for younger children seems like such a dramatic stretch. Should he have done an episode on sex slave trafficking? What about a Jeffrey Dahmer segment? My point is expecting him to address every single issue/event on a program for small children is unreasonable (from my perspective). And I feel as though you’re holding him to a higher standard than you are Sesame Street or Captain Kangaroo (the two shows you mentioned earlier). By your standard they are considerable cowards themselves, right? They certainly never covered every single issue or world event.

        It seems to me that it all comes back to one issue for you and the fact that Rogers may have viewed that issue differently has put him into the coward and homophobic category for you. Yes Rogers did tell François Clemmons not to go to the gay bar. But if you recall he also told him that he was afraid that it would give people ammunition and undermine the stands they were making on race. And I get back to Clemmons’ statements themselves. He knew Rogers far better than either of us and his love and respect for the man is without question.

    • I’m really curious about your response. I know that my history with his program played a part in my affection for the documentary. But I do believe I would still appreciate it even if I hadn’t grown up watching.

  6. I was also a kid who watched Mister Rogers every day. He was just part of my life for a number of years. So glad this doc is getting lots of praise. Looking forward to seeing it myself.

    • You sound like me. I watched him all the time. What’s amazing is that kindness wasn’t just a gimmick for him. Getting some insight into his life away from the camera was well worth the ticket price. I hope you can see it soon. I would love to read your thoughts on it.

  7. This film has really touched a chord with audiences. It’s easy to see why. He was such a genuine person. This is largely a glowing tribute. I suppose it could’ve been a bit more objective, but I’m ok with the point of view. Sometimes it’s nice to celebrate the good things.

    • I honestly didn’t think much about it’s objectivity. I you mentioned, I saw it more as a celebration for those who knew him best and us lucky enough to have grown up in his neighborhood. But I see your point. I’m curious to hear from those not so pro-Rogers.

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