It’s far too easy to take the best things in our world for granted. For those among us of a certain age, public television’s Fred Rogers is one such unduly overlooked treasure. It’s hard to overstate the positive impact that “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” imparted to a generation of impressionable latchkey kids and TV-addicted toddlers, but in Oscar-winning documentarian Morgan Neville’s love letter to the late Rogers, it’s not for lack of trying.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a very nearly perfect homage to a man whose off-screen personality was almost as unimpeachable as his on-screen persona, and Neville takes things a prescient step further by holding aloft Rogers’ unique brand of even-keeled strength as a beacon of hope and an exemplar of reasonable conduct in troubling times. With the same technical virtuosity that defined the director’s 20 Feet From Stardom, Neville delves into the man behind the cardigan and uncovers a human being that, almost implausibly, is every bit as good-natured and caring as his mythos would suggest.
Obviously, it wouldn’t be much of a movie if there weren’t more to the story than the superficial details. Those who were in the target demographic for the Neighborhood of Make-Believe during its 30-plus year run were likely oblivious to the often challenging political stances taken by Rogers’ show in its early days, ranging from addressing Robert Kennedy’s assassination in language children could understand to contravening prevalent segregationist practices by sharing a foot bath with Officer Clemmons, one of the first recurring black characters on a children’s show.
Neville speaks to Clemmons, as well as many of the other adults who participated in the show’s production, and the interviews do reveal important shading to Rogers’ character off-screen. But ultimately, it’s not the circumstances of Rogers’ life that make Won’t You Be My Neighbor? so riveting; it’s the man himself. While it may elucidate the motivations underlying his “expression of care” to know that Rogers abandoned a career as a Presbyterian minister in favor of a less overt form of evangelism, that’s not really the point. Even humanizing comments from Rogers’ adult sons, who recount the difficulties of growing up with “the second Christ,” as one puts it, don’t fully encapsulate the undeniable allure of Neville’s documentary.
The underlying appeal of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is so firmly rooted in the warmth and decency of Fred Rogers that it becomes effectively impossible to differentiate Neville’s film from its subject. So hypnotic and universal is the grace exhibited by Rogers that it permeates even the frames in which he is absent, allowing Neville’s film to exude the same gentle acceptance that greeted children around the globe (and at least one famous gorilla) five days a week from 1967 to 2001.
As a documentary, Neighbor competently contextualizes the role of Rogers’ career as both a product of its time and an enduring testament to the unheralded virtues of patience and humility. It’s not a warts-and-all exposé, but it is one of the most emotionally affective documentaries I’ve seen in recent memory, cutting straight to the heart of the inner child within even the most disillusioned viewer (or critic). A theatergoer in an adjacent row at the screening I attended summed it up nicely: “I can’t believe I just cried this much.” Rated PG-13. Starts June 22 at the Fine Arts Theatre.