Directed by Morgan Neville; produced by Morgan Neville, Nicholas Ma and Caryn Capotosto
This is a documentary about a unique person in television, and in children’s education. Fred Rogers not only was the host of the tv series Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood, from 1968 until 2001, but was its producer, music arranger, puppeteer and writer. Thirty-three years of holding those positions would qualify for a documentary on their own, but having the effect on children - and adults - that Rogers did, makes their analysis almost necessary.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? doesn’t quite follow the usual format of a filmed documentary. It is not completely linear because, while it does start by examining the early days of Fred Rogers’s involvement with television, and ends with his death in 2003, it moves back and forth in time, depending on the aspect of Rogers’s life and career it is examining. It comprises archival footage, interviews, even animation; like its subject, it is not exciting, but it is entertaining, interesting, intriguing, and never dull.
The picture the movie paints of Fred Rogers is an overwhelmingly complimentary one - indeed, from other stories and discussions of the man, it seems that it would have been difficult to construct a derogatory documentary - but it doesn’t let him off the hook entirely. His two sons imply that it was not easy being Mr Rogers’s offspring, though it is equally implied that this was not Rogers’s fault. As well, he appears to have been a very determined man, which could be frustrating, even annoying, for more laid-back people, but his determination was in the best causes.
The documentary is a good one in that it considers not just Rogers, nor his attempts to educate children, but how he did it. His unflinching tackling of topics such as divorce and racism, death and even political assassination, is probably unparalleled in children’s television. What made him superior to many programmes that attempted the same was that he dealt largely in children’s feelings; how a child reacts to certain events or influences, and why negative reactions are not always bad.
There are very affecting moments in the film, such as when Rogers appeared before a U.S. congressional committee to help obtain funding for public television. Facing a politician notorious for his antagonism to tv, Rogers convinced the man to support public television in a matter of minutes. (This scene is notable not just for Rogers’s earnestness and success but for its demonstration that there was a time when politicians could be persuaded of new ideas, and did not rigidly adhere to the party line to the exclusion of all good. Yes, it was a long time ago.) Also moving, in another way, is Rogers’s interaction with the famous gorilla Koko. She did not know Rogers’s as a tv personality but quickly created a bond with him. (This says perhaps just as much about Koko as Rogers.)
One of the most intriguing moments for me was when it described how quiet, even silent, Rogers’s instruction could be. In one scene, he demonstrated the length of a minute, using a timer - and silence. This reminded me of something many children’s educators and entertainers have forgotten - if they ever knew it. Children often play and learn quietly, even noiselessly. Anyone who has watched children, especially a single child, at play, will note this. That is often when learning is most effective. If a documentary can give a viewer a revelation, there is something to it.
But Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is more than just a few good moments. It is a telling and affectionate tribute to an unprecedented phenomenon in television, probably one not to be repeated. And the fact that the world thinks there is no room for another Mr Rogers, that it has moved beyond him, is, unfortunately, its saddest statement.