“Simple is best” has been an age-old adage for us all, but rarely does a film take that message so sincerely to heart and the outcome adhere so faithfully to the sentiment. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” however does just that, with a wonderfully straightforward and effortless profile of Fred Rogers, a giant of American children’s television.
Charting his rise from a local television station in Pittsburgh to a national icon, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” examines the life and legacy of Fred Rogers, the beloved host of the popular children’s TV show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
Non-fiction filmmaking has found itself chasing tales in its competition with its scripted counterparts. Nevertheless, multi-million dollar non-fiction enterprises have littered the screens of streaming services and cable networks. The tendency has been to reach ever higher, to stretch ever further, where stories either offer up the scope of the heavens or the granules of the earth. Invariably, high-budget non-fiction filmmaking deals in the currency of the telescope or the microscope but rarely as a humble window into the retrospective. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is a wonderfully crafted piece that allows its subject to shine on screen. It offers up Mr Rogers front and centre, with the man himself and those who knew him best doing the heavy lifting, telling a story that reveals one of the true national treasures of 20th century American television.
Morgan Neville is no stranger to back-to-the-basics filmmaking. In a documentary scene where “talking heads” has become a dirty phrase and archival footage is met with a yawn by network executives, Neville has generated a diverse portfolio of filmmaking. From the exquisite Best of Enemies to the Academy Award-winning 20 Feet From Stardom, he has simply demonstrated irresistible storytelling. In “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Neville wraps the spine of the movie around a small cadre of interviews and a revealing deluge of archival footage. He is at an advantage considering the nature of his subject, but Neville does an effortless job in weaving together the rise and philosophy of a man that brought so much joy and much needed respect to children’s television.
Neville’s latest endeavour would be easy to dismiss as an homage to a national treasure, but that would dismiss the pain-staking dedication that Mr Rogers paid to children’s television and the esteem with which Neville goes about his process. Neville allows for Mr Rogers’ personality to breath through the piece, with its humour, its silence and its faithful intention befitting of the man himself. It is a movie that embraces cynicism, embraces it with open arms, and then diffuses it with the story of a man who arduously worked against it. There are no twists into the dark, no unexpected turns of character (perhaps Fred Rogers’ caution in supporting homosexuality is his only would-be hamartia of the modern age) and yet the film remains undeniably entertaining and engaging.
Whether it’s the ever-charming manner in which Fred Rogers disarms the congressional hearing looking to defund PBS, the grin with which those that knew him reflect on their friend or the palpable resonance in the dark room of a theatre where an audience are so easily transformed back into childhood, Neville lets us relive the simplicity of youth and allows the visionary of American children’s television to guide us along the way.
In an era where good is met with incredulity and educational television is taboo, the story of Mr Rogers is a refreshing and galvanising piece. He was never one to shy away from difficult topics, never one to cover the grey shades of life in a blanket of certainty. He let the topics of death and divorce and racial segregation into the eyes and ears of the American child and let them understand that the world in which they had found themselves was going to be difficult, but that there is nothing to be afraid of. He was a man that allowed himself to be so tremendously open and so vulnerably exposed in order that children know their supposed foibles and blemishes and self-critiques were what made them unique.
“It’s you I like. It’s not the things you wear, it’s not the way you do your hair, but it’s you I like. The way you are right now, the way down deep inside you, not the things that hide you, not your toys, they’re just beside you. But it’s you I like. Every part of you.”
Perhaps at a time where it is so easy to feel embittered, where right and wrong are the ubiquitous words of the day and media is a source of such division, the story of Mr Rogers comes across not only as the retrospective of a giant in honesty and goodness, but a reminder that those lessons are still what must reside in the heart.
“Love is at the root of everything. All learning, all relationships, love or the lack of it.”
If there is a lesson to take away, it is the pervading notion that Mr Rogers left an indelible mark on the mind of the American child, a mark that is readily willing to reopen. Neville has chosen this moment to remind us that we should take to heart the lessons of childhood: lean towards love and eradicate a lack thereof.