It feels a little weird to ding a movie like Won’t You Be My Neighbor, a good-intentioned, well-meaning, feel swell montage about Mister Rogers. Fred Rogers was the iconic creator, writer, star and host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, that saccharine children’s show that made him one of the first heroes of all youngsters growing up in the 60s, 70s, 80s into the 90s. His aw schucks charm, and inability to talk down to kids made him a comforting and friendly force for television. But, and maybe this is a spoiler alert, turns he was every bit as good and wholesome as his image suggests. And therein lies my quibble. While Neighbor will undoubtedly make you feel good about the universe, especially the one we live in now, where hatred, cynicism and division reign supreme, there’s really no conflict to the story at all, which results in a collection of clips and interviews strong in emotion, but lacking in conflict.
It’s not to say the movie is bad. Far from it. It’s quite enjoyable and certainly Rogers is a man worth celebrating. His unfettered joy at working with children is palpable, and his consistent ability to talk to them honestly about subjects like death and racism is laudable. He was always a strong proponent in the belief that television as a medium could be used for wondrous things, and this point is driven home in one of the best sequences in the film: a congressional hearing in the seventies, where public access TV, home of Neighborhood, was in danger of losing funding.
In speaking with family, friends, and co-workers, you get a great sense as to who Fred Rogers was, and what he stood for. It’s almost shocking to see someone with a strong religious background consistently represent his faith not with sermons and pronouncements, or hatred and bigotry, but merely by being a good person, and a loving, nurturing, supportive and inclusive individual. This has not been my experience with most of the staunchly religious people I’ve encountered, in real life or on TV.
Won’t You Be Neighbor is filled with a treasure trove of clips, and the ones that hit hardest are the ones dealing with racism, gun violence, and other tragedies that are difficult for adults to process, much less children. The grace and care with which he imbued his life’s work is commendable, and the movie is as comforting as Rogers’ signature cardigan. Watching it, I felt better about people in general, and this man in specific, and I felt worse about myself, for wishing there was just a little more there.
My Grade – B+