Documentaries about nostalgic subject matter (toys, shows, books, movies) are a dime a dozen. Most rationalize their existence with the claim that whatever affinity is the subject of the documentary was significant and bold and daring in the grand scheme of things. This decade of American popular culture is sort of defined by expressions of shared engagement with mass-market storytelling, and nostalgia plays a key role in determining which stories are in vogue, and if your happy memories of sitting on the couch after school aren’t important, what are you?
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? could have been a nostalgic look back at Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the famous PBS program that ran from 1968 until 2001. Clips from the Land of Make-Believe, of Fred Rogers putting on his shoes and happy memories from past episodes and subject matter are all this really needed to gain a fond audience and live life out on a streaming service, well-regarded by fans and casual viewers alike.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is not just that.
Structurally it reminds me somewhat of last year’s Jane, the documentary about Jane Goodall, in that Won’t You Be My Neighbor? aims for capturing an essence of a person’s influence, using the tools of documentary filmmaking to do it.
Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom, The Music of Strangers) draws from interviews with Joanne Rogers (the late Fred Rogers’ wife), Francois Scarborough Clemmons, Yo-Yo Ma, Joe Negri and other close friends and family to Rogers as a way of capturing the spirit of his work, or making a broader point about what made him special. Rogers was trained as a Presbyterian minister before going into TV as a way of educating children. He saw a world where children were watching programs that didn’t teach them about life. Programs that were fast-paced, mean-spirited, or besmirched the importance of basic dignity. His program, as it developed, dealt with issues as basic as feeling sad or going to the doctor, or contextualized for children real-world events like assassination or racial segregation.
The film is not a straight biography, nostalgia piece or expose: It’s a harnessing of the fundamental element of Fred Rogers’ character that truly made him special. He didn’t necessarily change the world; even by the 1990s, he had been subject to lampooning for so long that I grew up knowing of it as something of a joke. But he impacted the lives of thousands of people. Through listening and treating them with respect, he did something more powerful than selling a lot of toys. He accepted them for them.
Even the film’s advertising promotes a catharsis for our “divided times,” as if trotting Mr. Rogers onto the screen is enough to remind us of who we once were. The movie makes clear that he was always unique, not always perfect and not even appreciated for his entire tenure as an entertainer. What is important about him, as the movie ultimately concludes, is that he always tried; he did his best to care and to extend tenderness to others.
There’s a portion of the movie explaining his most famous character, Daniel Tiger, the puppet he used to convey many of his lessons (and himself), and to provide children with an external entity to whom they could freely express themselves. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? feels a bit like a Daniel Tiger of a documentary, made for the audience to respond to in lieu of any other outlet for the depth of our current despondence. Social media is full of posts about how the trailer alone made people cry – I cried a lot at this movie.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? never sugarcoats the enormity of the task of being a decent person, and it never pretends Fred Rogers had all the answers to fix everything. By focusing the sweetness of Fred Rogers’ ideals at their most intimate, asking each interviewee about someone who loved them and had an influence on their life, the movie draws itself to a manageable conclusions: we are all capable of being that shoulder to lean on, that ear to hear, that soul who can take in the troubles of another to make our local world a better place. In the end, that truly is all we can do, and the movie is smart for saying it: It never once deifies Fred Rogers as a once-in-a-lifetime savior of children, understanding that his greatness is defined solely by the positive role he played in the lives of those who loved him. He just had a broader reach than most people will ever have.
During the Q&A that followed this advance screening, an audience member — an older woman, a teacher — asked who today’s Fred Rogers is. And the answer is, well, that call to action at the end of the movie is precisely that: A call to action for everyone watching the film. The reality shown by the movie itself shows that there wasn’t really a “today’s Fred Rogers,” that he was constantly lampooned and goofed on from all sides for most of his career. He wasn’t a second Christ; he was an eccentric man who sought to make others feel better in their time. He was not perfect: Neville uses animation to depict the darker elements of his life that he used his own puppetry and program to work through. But perfect isn’t real, we can make the world better for others without fame and and a stage, and isn’t that the whole point?