Fred Rogers had stopped working on his popular television series, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, to explore new projects, when he heard a news story about children injuring themselves while attempting to imitate Superman. This spurred Rogers to return to his old show with a new season, part of which was dedicated to addressing superheroes. Rogers saw the depiction of superheroes in the media, and Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of Superman specifically, as irresponsible (one can only wonder what he would say about today’s entertainment landscape). This is a common theme in Morgan Neville’s documentary, and a focus of Rogers’ work: to address our relationship to mass media, particularly to think critically about the images we are showing our children and create responsible media that provides a more positive influence, for the betterment of the world. But this begs a question, which the film seems unwilling to confront: did Rogers succeed?
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a fine documentary, typical in its construction and providing routine insight into the man and his show. Comprised mostly of archive footage and talking head interviews, Neville’s film is structured to give a basic overview of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, from its inception to its conclusion. It addresses a few of the show’s milestones and a couple of Rogers’ major accomplishments (most notably, his testimony to Senator Pastore’s subcommittee to secure $20 million in funding for PBS). The influence and impact of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is presented as self-evident, and Rogers’ public persona is barely challenged or investigated. There is little attempt to address the complexity of Rogers as a person, particularly the relationship between his religion and his politics, giving these aspects of his life a mere cursory glance.
The only novel aspect of the film is a handful of brief animated sequences, depicting Rogers as Daniel Striped Tiger, his surrogate hand puppet. These are simple, quaint sequences that attempt to provide some emotional or psychological insight into Rogers as a person, since Rogers is no longer here to speak for himself. The film argues, as do many of the interview subjects, that there is no character or persona to Rogers, that he is always simply himself, a truly authentic human being (one of his sons refers to him as the second Christ). Rogers was an intensely private individual, and the film respects that; to that end, the animation sequences feel like the film is straining to grasp something significant, without wanting to work through the deeper implications of the many masks (or puppets) that Rogers was clearly hiding behind.
But none of this suggests that Rogers wasn’t authentic or sincere; indeed, nothing could be further from the truth. Rogers was a tireless force for good, and his impact is, in fact, self-evident. Clips throughout the film demonstrate the influence he had on countless children growing up, some of whom meet Rogers as adults and break down emotionally, thanking him for everything he has done. And the unique qualities that Rogers brought to television are so self-evident that Neville often shows entire, unedited clips from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, knowing when to stand back and let Rogers do all the heavy-lifting. When Lady Aberlin and Daniel Striped Tiger sing a duet about self-image and self-doubt, or discuss the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, the power of Rogers’ work shines through. Rogers respected his audience, children and adults, and acted as an emotional guide through troubling and confusing times. The quality of his work speaks for itself.
Beyond admiring Rogers, Neville does orchestrate a potent and emotional conclusion for his film; but even as he successfully stirs hearts and souls, he again ignores that one difficult question. One of the interview subjects, a personal friend of Rogers and a journalist, begins his interview saying he often struggles with the question of whether Rogers was able to reach the whole country, to actually change America. Closer to the end of the film, he remembers an incident at Rogers’ memorial service, when he went outside and saw protesters gathering to condemn what they saw as Rogers’ tolerance of homosexuality. He remembers, specifically, how confused and miserable the kids looked, dragged along or “recruited” by their parents to participate in the protest. The film ends on a positive and inspiring note, but the spectre of that question and anecdote looms. Neville trusts so completely in the self-evident quality of Rogers’ work and message that the film does not or cannot grapple with the problem of Rogers’ legacy. Fred Rogers did not change the world; or, more specifically, he lost his battle against television and the media. The film refuses to confront that uncomfortable reality, and as such, offers little beyond a heart-warming reminder of Rogers’ life.
And that’s fine. A film that addresses the media landscape more directly is not what Neville had in mind; indeed, he betrays his own unwillingness or inability to do so in a montage of cartoon show clips, taking one of Rogers’ speeches about responsible media and using it as an opportunity to snipe at random targets, a brief and seemingly harmless moment on the surface that nevertheless struck me as intellectually dishonest. And it’s also frustrating because there are a lot of interesting ideas in the film that deserve more scrutiny and discussion.
I was particularly fascinated with a brief discussion on how Rogers used time and silence in his art. In one example, he grabbed an egg timer and sat in silence to see—or, more appropriately, feel—the length of a single minute. This approach to time had me thinking about David Lynch getting upset on the set of the Twin Peaks revival over discussions of the length of scenes and audience responses to the completed work (ranging from declaring Lynch a masterful troll to a pretentious artist who simply does not respect the audience’s time, none of which is true). For artists like Rogers and Lynch, silence is a gift. Their relationship to time has a spiritual and meditative nature; and their understanding and awareness of time, as a factor of their medium and art, is a quality we have seemingly lost in today’s media landscape of relentless information and distraction.
The value of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? may nevertheless reside in the simple fact of its own existence. If nothing else, it stands as a testament to everything the media has lost, and that we as a community lost when we lost Rogers. I do not think a gentle reminder is anywhere close to sufficient, but by making this film now, and releasing it in today’s market, Neville makes a simple point and makes it clear: Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was not merely a children’s show but a sincere dialogue with an entire nation, a dialogue we desperately need. And on that note, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is an easy film to recommend. I found the experience of sitting in a theatre with a group of people, spending ninety minutes in the company of Rogers—or the filmic memory of him and his art—to be calming and cathartic. Because sometimes we all need that: a place where we can find a little reassurance, and hope, to fight the battles that are waiting for us again outside.