It shouldn’t be difficult to make a sweet movie about Fred Rogers, the gentle host of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood on PBS. But Morgan Neville doesn’t make superficial documentaries, as evidenced by Twenty Feet from Stardom (which earned him an Oscar) and Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal. There is much more to this portrait of Mr. Rogers than I expected. It delves into his philosophy, his doubts, his lifelong fear that he wasn’t making a difference—when in fact we see ample evidence that he did.
He was a man on a mission. He took children and their developmental challenges seriously, and didn’t shy away from tackling difficult subjects—right up to 9/11. Neville interviews his devoted wife, sister, and two sons who seem to have carved their own path but aren’t terribly forthcoming. (One of them refers to his dad as the second Christ, and he doesn’t say it ironically.)
No one ever questioned Fred Rogers’ sincerity. One of the highlights of this documentary is watching him testify before a senate committee which held the fate of public television in its hands. The chairman was sarcastic, condescending, and abrupt…until he encountered Mr. Rogers.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is not a puff piece. Neville takes us on a highly emotional journey through its subject’s life and almost-accidental television career, which blossomed far beyond his expectations. He remains a beacon and role model for anyone who cares about children and wants to help shape their young lives. If you don’t know anything about Fred Rogers, consider it an entertaining tutorial; if you know a little something about the man, or grew up watching him, it will be a revelation.
To learn where and when the film is screening near you, click HERE.