Fred Rogers has meant so much to so many people that it’s hard to separate the man from his image. So to hear from his friends and family that the man asking us to be his neighbor was pretty much exactly as he appeared on TV for so many years is remarkable. And in today’s world, a Fred Rogers might really do some good, even if only in memory.
Directed by Morgan Neville, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” examines more Mr. Rogers’ philosophy more so than painting a portrait or biography. As the 1950s morph into the 60s and 70s and 80s, all the way up to 9/11, can Mr. Rogers’ simple message of accepting love from others and believing in yourself hold up as the times change? Utilizing interviews with his friends and family, clips from his show and semi-frequent animation, the film explores what Mr. Rogers stood for and how his positive view of life influenced his actions.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” uses the sour current national mood as a backdrop. Have we lost a bit of the kindness that Mr. Rogers preached of us? The cynic would say yes or that the optimism of the 1980s or 90s was overblown, but the film does a good job of framing today’s issues as lacking a sense of the idea of decency. Respect, love and kindness are universal themes that never go out of style, and it’s amazing how such a simple message can be so hard to convey and appreciate.
The arc of the documentary is Fred Rogers’ continuous struggle to show children and adults that simple peace and love are important, overcoming a national stage that values superfluousness, cynicism and moxie. Even Mr. Rogers himself struggled with a feeling that what he did was never enough, but the joy he instilled in others as demonstrated in the film stands as a testament to his work. It’s a powerful message that many need to remember and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is a sterling work of love that Mr. Rogers himself would appreciate.