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.
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.
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