The nostalgia of childhood is a powerful thing. As a critic, I have done my fair share of whining about the wave of remakes and sequels currently running through the entertainment industry. When word first started emerged from Sundance that an awesome documentary was making the rounds about children’s television icon and PBS titan Fred Rogers, I was skeptical. How could that be a thing? Well, I’m a big critic, and I can admit when I guess wrong. While this movie is likely going to have a smaller release, find a theater near you playing Won’t You Be My Neighbor. In a world of racist, Ambien taking comedians and bombastic politicians, I think we all need a little Mister Rogers back in our lives.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor follows Fred Rogers from his beginnings on the Pittsburgh television airwaves as the young Rogers chooses to delay his chosen theological path (Mister Rogers was an ordained minister) to produce a children’s television program. It is the early 1950s, and TV was very much in its infancy. Bringing his passion for child psychology, the series grew and developed with the times, gradually becoming the non-threatening juggernaught it would become. The documentary follows Rogers and Mister Rogers Neighborhood through the turbulent years that followed. Despite how tired he became, or how bleak things seemed to feel, the unflappable host always came at things with a smile. The film is directed by Morgan Neville.
If you’re a child of the Mister Rogers generation (a child of the 90’s here!), this movie proves to be a highly emotional viewing. Perhaps this is compounded by the seeming dumpster fiery state of our world, but from the opening moments of this documentary, I was an absolute mess. We’re not talking about a quick moment to collect oneself and recover. No. From an emotional perspective, Won’t You Be My Neighbor proved to be a one hour and thirty minute ugly cry from start to finish. This isn’t a distressing movie. Rather, it was a happy cry.
As a film-maker, Neville does an absolutely stellar job at capturing Fred Rogers as a man. There’s a joy to this movie, and it all comes from the archived clips of Rogers. In fact, the host does much of his own talking throughout the story. Neville uses interviews with Rogers’ wife, his children and former crew members to fill in the rest of the gaps. As the waves of trolley and sock-puppet nostalgia roll over you, suddenly you’re hit with that moment of clarity. I’m okay. I’m okay just the way I am, darn it. Rogers sense of joy, acceptance and love permeates the story, and it feels not only doubly powerful, but necessary in our hard-hitting, distressing contemporary culture. This movie couldn’t come at a better time.
Continuing on, Neville’s focus on the history of the middle twentieth century and how this plays into Rogers’ career feels spot on. Interestingly the evolution of Rogers’ career follows some of the most turbulent periods in American history. He helped children get through the horrors of the Vietnam War, the Nixon administration and the Challenger explosion. Neville uses this history to frame the events of his documentary, and suddenly you get an appreciation for something we all missed… Mister Rogers was ridiculously woke…like incredibly in-tune with society around him.
What felt surprisingly grounded (and topical) was Neville’s use of archival footage of a congressional hearing during the peak of the Nixon years. During this period, the still new PBS saw its funding under-attack from the government and they were brought to Washington to argue for their funding. It’s a heavy and intimidating scene, one which we’ve become all too familiar with during this age of the 24 hour news cycle. Rogers is brought out as one of the final witnesses. Neville lets the clip run and you can hear the nerves in the still young presenter’s voice. However, he recites the lyrics to a song about what to do when you feel really mad… it’s Mister Rogers. And suddenly, the mood to the hearing changes. He’s gotten through the thick heads of the committee, and PBS gets their money. No matter where you are politically, I don’t think many would disagree with replacing certain branches of our government with Mister Rogers Neighborhood reruns… just think about that for a moment.
It’s difficult to find much to criticise about the documentary. The weakest portion of the film comes midway through as the narration shifts to talk about the various parodies in pop culture. Then we have the rumours… was Mister Rogers a navy seal? Was Fred Rogers gay? While the position of the film is completely fine, this side-track didn’t feel necessary. It doesn’t hit as hard as some of the earlier portions and could have been cut a little shorter.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor is a diamond in the rough. This well-produced documentary is so incredibly timely, here’s hoping we see a lot more of this as the year goes on. While this movie will likely be a harder one to view, take the extra step to find it playing near you.
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