Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is the moving documentary story of “Mister” Fred Rogers, a religious man who found something holy in his mission to create television for children drowning in cultural junk.
This was junk, by the way, that many of us consumed voraciously, and without regret.
I was raised – happily — on Jay Ward and Chuck Jones. On Bullwinkle, Rocky, and Fractured Fairy Tales. I had no time or inclination for the un-fractured fairy tales of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, with its earnest didactic puppets and instructive parables.
As far as I was concerned, Rogers was Dudley Do-Right. Such a goody two-shoes who actually made a point of putting on two pairs of shoes when he starting his show. The show arrived in Pittsburgh about the same cultural time as the Johnny Seven OMA (one-man army) toy rifle, perhaps the most irresponsible and simultaneously awesome toy (three missiles, a grenade launcher, tripod) ever invented. Kids in our neighborhood were both free range and down range.
This is what Rogers was up against. You actually see it in Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, which contains priceless, vintage TV footage of a commercial aimed at selling toy weapons to children – lever-action BB guns magically tumble forth from the console television, into the hands of ecstatic children who race off to shoot them.
What did Rogers, the abstemious beanpole, have to offer as an alternative?
Nothing, it turns out, except God’s love.
You don’t have to be a fan to be walloped by this revelation in Neighbor, which tracks Rogers’ roots as a bullied boy (Fat Freddie in middle school) who’s on his way to being a Presbyterian minister when an epiphany directs him instead into television, where he’s called to counter forces of pie-in-the-face juvenalia commandeering the eyeballs (and perhaps the souls) of the nation’s children.
You could argue there’s evidence in Rogers’ story of intelligent design – Rogers’ work takes him to a PBS station in Pittsburgh, which puts him in the orbit of the pioneering University of Pittsburgh child psychologists T. Berry Brazelton and Margaret McFarland, who were starting to understand the important emotional and psychological lives of children. Rogers soaks up their groundbreaking ideas and invokes them in his calling — reaching, teaching, and nurturing children through his television program. His own kids called him “the Second Jesus.”
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? emphasizes that Rogers never used the show to proselytize. Yet the sacred nature of his mission was there in his work – talking sincerely and usefully to children about divorce, disability, death. The assassination of a president. The explosion of a space shuttle. He spoke eloquently to a nation of troubled kids, and to individual children (as we see here), who flourished under his respectful attention.
It is a portrait not of grinding earnestness but of a penetrating sincerity, the kind that reduces the cynical, the skeptical, and the callous to tears – tears Rogers would routinely produce among adults when asking them, at commencement addresses, to stop and think for 10 seconds about someone who “loved them into being.”
Emotions also arise from the possibility that society’s answer to the movie’s title question is no. We see little evidence today that Rogers’ mission to raise a generation on “love thy neighbor” empathy has succeeded, and no wonder – if television is an implacable foe, what would Fred Rogers — who allowed only two edits per show — make of the internet, which offers endless, algorithmic loops of rapid-fire YouTube stimuli designed to “systematically frighten, traumatise, and abuse children, automatically and at scale“?
The film ends with conservative media heat-seekers denouncing Rogers – a lifelong Republican — as “evil” for teaching that each child is “special.”
But each child is special, Rogers believed, because each has been endowed with God’s love. At his funeral in 2003, fundamentalists show up to denounce homosexuality, especially depressing given the film’s heartfelt passage about the friendship between Rogers and a gay cast member.
Rogers, like most believers, sometimes had doubts about his mission, but never gave up, or in. His faith made him strong. He would surely have spiritual resolve to endure the current moment, the Barrs and the Bees.
He would calmly ask us to summon our better angels, with his familiar benediction: I knew that you could.
That makes one of us.
Won't You Be My Neighbor?
- Directed by Morgan Neville. Featuring Fred Rogers. Distributed by Focus Features.
- Parents guide: PG-13 (thematic elements, language)
- Running time: 1 hour, 34 mins.
- Playing at: Ritz Five