Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood ran for 33 years, beginning in 1963 and ending in 2001. During that time, Fred Rogers did not revolutionize children’s television—it is safe to say other network producers did not, and have not, caught on to what made his show so pervasive. But he did create something unique: a platform to communicate to children, rather than pander to or exploit them.
Upon seeing the negative influence of television, Rogers left the seminary to do what he could to buck the trend. Within a matter of years, he was picked up by PBS and, through some advocacy for the potential of television for good, became a national figure.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, from the documentarian behind Best of Enemies and the Oscar-winning 20 Feet From Stardom, chronicles Rogers’ rise and lasting impact. A documentary is only as fascinating as its subject, and director Morgan Neville has shown a knack for finding those engaging figures. In 20 Feet From Stardom, it is the heard but largely unseen powerhouse backup singers behind some of America’s most popular acts. In Best of Enemies, it is the political commentators that proved to be fore-bearers of the modern media cycle.
And with Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, it is a ubiquitous television personality who is perhaps more readily remembered for his idiosyncrasies than his impact. The documentary captures both sides in a whimsical, illuminating manner. Just as Rogers himself did with his program, the doc balances emotional levity with emotional weight.
This tone is more attributable to the footage of Rogers’ program than to the original footage the documentary provides. All the same, the archival work is commendable.
As is the film’s general hopefulness. There is an infectious quality to the empathy on display. It is an empathy that bleeds from nearly every frame, save for those frames dedicated to the once trendy attempt by the media to deem Fred Rogers as a menace to society. By comparison, these news clippings appear silly.
It seems as though this is the larger point that Neville is trying to make with Won’t You Be My Neighbor?. Hope and empathy are not lost concepts, artifacts of a pre-9/11 time. Rogers is emblematic not of an exception to the norm, but of a potentiality present in all people. He was exceptional for his ability to bring that potential to light day-in and day-out. The documentary may read at large stretches like a greatest hits reel of Rogers’ program, but in a sense that is enough to make the point.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor: B+
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)