Documentary on Fred Rogers introduces a new audience to the educational neighborhood
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is a documentary about the life of Fred Rogers, host and creator of the children’s television show, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” it aired on public television from 1962 to 2001 and is one of the longest running children’s televisions shows. The documentary is brought to us by Academy Award Winning director Morgan Neville, who shows remarkable restraint with this look at one of the most benevolent entertainers in recent memory.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor” examines the work and impact of the man Fred Rogers, as opposed to taking a specifically biographical look at the man behind the work. There is of course nothing wrong with that, and this film itself does make mentions of several moments in Mister Rogers life that would have a significant impact on his work, such as childhood struggles with illness and bullying or conversely showing how his work then influenced him, revealing how even later in life Fred Rogers was an insecure artist who questioned the worth of the things he made. Neville also doesn’t worry himself with addressing the various rumors circulated about Rogers, giving them only the briefest of mentions and putting them to bed with the simplistic authority they warrant.
The film shows how Mister Rogers understood and foresaw the relationship between the burgeoning medium of television and the minds of the young children in American households; and how he sought to use this relationship for good. As Rogers himself states in the film: Life is a series of modulations. Some are easy, and some are hard, and children need someone to help them understand and handle those modulations.
The most eye-opening aspect of the film was how Roger’s communicated rather serious real-life concepts to children, making it palatable for them but still treating them as the intelligent, emotional people they are. Roger’s tackled broad topics such as death and divorce to more societal topics relating to the then current national events such as political violence and racial discrimination. The latter topic Roger’s addresses to great effect with nothing more than a children’s wading pool.
What I have to praise the most about this film is the pacing. It is described by Rotten Tomatoes as “fittingly patient.” But I think the movie said it best while describing the pacing of Mister Roger’s own show, “unhurried, but deliberate and determined.” The runtime for “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is 94 minutes, but not one second of it feels wasted or rushed.
While I was watching, the critic and artist in me was at first crying out for more when it came to the actual production and presentation of the film; but upon retrospection, I realized how keeping those aspects relatively simple, yet still varied, benefits the film greatly. Look at “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” itself-its sets were simple and its production cost low, made with nothing more than a few puppets, props and the passion of several people. So it’s fitting that the documentary examining the success and impact of such a program conveys this information with a simple score, a few animations, and footage of several of those same passionate people- and not much else.
Above all “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” reminds its audience of the good in the world. In 2018 when so much of the mass and social media that permeates our lives is depressing or even highly vitriolic, this film shows us that a genuinely good man once existed in this world and the ideas and values he tried to instill are just as, if not more, important today and should never be forgotten.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is a simple, patient and ultimately inspiring look at the impact of a man and the work he produced it is perfect for people already familiar with Rogers and his neighborhood to people who may have never heard of him before, and it gets a definite recommendation from me.