Documentaries that feature a viable subject matter and present it with care have the power to truly transcend. Morgan Neville’s ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’, a film marking the impetus and long, celebrated run of ordained minister Fred Rogers’ landmark PBS television program, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” is one such documentary. The movie not only traces the history of the show, but more importantly, it posits its unique influence on the culture at large. The style of the program and the lessons therein provided a wonderful blueprint for impressionable children’s psyches, a universal mantra of love and understanding within a medium that can be, and often is, used irresponsibly.
Rather than continue down what seemed a pre-ordained path to becoming a Presbyterian minister, Fred Rogers decided that he could do more good by creating counter-programming to the frenetic and silly children’s shows that were popular in the first decades of television. As recounted by admiring friends, family (his wife and sons feature prominently in interviews for this piece), and devoted cast and crewmembers, Rogers was particularly suited to connecting with young children on a basic, fundamental emotional level. His patient demeanor and ability to tap into the base insecurities that he felt as a child allowed him to structure a program that mirrored his ability to connect to individual children in small group settings.
‘Neighborhood’ gained popularity during the turbulent late 60s and early 70s, affording Rogers the chance to address topical issues as seen through the eyes of the very young. The documentary highlights a few individual episodes that were filmed in response to the Vietnam War, Robert Kennedy’s assassination, and the Civil Rights movement. In these vignettes, the subtle and sensitive manner in which he addresses these concerns truly stand out as examples of the right way to present them to an audience, both to the children and even to their parents watching along. It’s hard to calculate just what effect ‘Mister Rogers’ had on its viewers, but once the familiar tickling of ivory and soothing lyrics of the ingrained songs start up on screen, it’s impossible to deny their power. Neville combines archival behind the scenes footage with animation and interviews in the present to paint a moving portrait of a man and his singular creation, one that rings with the power of interpersonal understanding, and as corny as it may sound, results in a rare film that fills the viewer’s heart with LOVE . . .
Directed By: Morgan Neville
Running Time: 94 min.
* * * * (out of four stars) -OR- A