There are very few individuals in history who have meant as much to public television as Fred Rogers. The children’s program “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood” became a staple of American culture over its thirty plus years on the air. What the man became as a pop culture icon is undeniable. This is where “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” begins its exploration of Fred Rogers. As the film progresses, it not only takes a serious look at his life as an activist but reinforces the importance of his message for years to come.
Directed by the incredible Morgan Neville, the film follows Rogers from the creation of “Children’s Corner” in 1954, through his passing in 2003. There are flashbacks and moments that harken back to his childhood, but they are far from the focus. Neville dives into Rogers’ as both a performer and person. Perhaps most important, we understand Rogers’ ethos of love conquering all comes from his faith. We also see his moments of self-doubt and moments of triumph over the years. It’s a well-rounded image of a man, who many still attempt to understand today.
Perhaps the most surprising footage of the documentary shows his efforts to use the show as political allegory for children. The very first week of the show, the popular character King Friday the 13th builds a wall around his kingdom to stop “change” from coming to his land. This occurred at the height of the Cold War, with Russia and America in a standoff. In another episode, Rogers washing his feet in the same pool François Clemmons (Officer Clemmons) is a statement advocating for desegregation. Rogers covered topics as surreal as the Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy to the extremely personal issues of depression. His ability to break down complex issues, and talk to children about them through puppetry is simply breathtaking.
There’s a fair bit of focus on how Rogers’ brought his characters to life. The puppets that he performs with are seemingly based on real people, with Daniel Striped Tiger and King Friday working as stand-ins for Rogers. The Daniel Striped Tiger information narration appears to have been Rogers’ easiest way of expressing himself. The self-doubt he felt through most of his life was allowed to become real through Daniel. In some footage, we see Rogers’ acknowledge it is easier to speak through Daniel than it is to speak as himself.
The film’s real strength comes from the incredible blend of archival footage with standard documentary talking head interviews. The stories we hear from Rogers’ family, friends and coworkers are simply beautiful. There moments that will make you belly laugh and guffaw, closely followed by a scene that will have you fighting back tears. As the film progresses, it takes more of a solemn tone, eventually bringing Rogers’ through the end of his career. Some of the most emotionally poignant moments occur at the end of the documentary. There’s even a moment where we perform an exercise of Rogers’ one that will emotionally devastate you. It’s a beautiful moment that reminds us of Roger’s true ability to inspire and move us.
Overall, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” is one of the most moving films you will see in 2018. For anyone who grew up with any connection to Rogers, nostalgia will push you over the edge time and time again. Yet even for the uninformed, watching Rogers testify to Congress to save PBS, or singing songs with a young man in a wheelchair, or even doing his best to cope with 9/11 will bring you to tears. Fred Rogers is an extraordinary man who deserved an extraordinary film about his life. Thanks to Neville, we now have that.