One of the biggest movies at the box office for children last year was “The Smurfs.” Taking in over $560 million worldwide, the 3D, CG/live action reboot tossed in references to Aerosmith, “Rock Band,” bodily functions and “Midnight Cowboy” (among many others) in a slick and glossy production whose greatest accomplishment was keeping kids in once place for 86 minutes, while harried parents got a moment to breathe. It says something about how much the idea and perception of entertainment for children has changed, that in watching old clips of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” the show practically feels revolutionary. Moving at a measured, distinctly unhurried pace, with a man who spoke honestly and directly to his young viewers, even decades later, for anyone who grew up watching the show, Fred Rogers still represents an honesty and integrity in children’s programming that simply hasn’t been matched. And it’s those values of caring, decency and love for your neighbor that are honored in Benjamin and Christofer Wagner‘s “Mister Rogers & Me.”
This isn’t a comprehensive look at the life of Fred Rogers (which is fascinating, and certainly would make for an exceptional documentary on its own), but instead it follows something that Rogers had told director Benjamin Wagner after the two had met while vacationing in Nantucket. “I feel so strongly that deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex,” Rogers said. The next summer, when Wagner had told Rogers he shared that philosophy with his friends and colleagues back in the big city where he worked at MTV, Rogers encouraged him to, “Spread the message, Benjamin.”
And the ideal of “deep and simple” reverberates throughout the documentary, as Wagner tracks down the disparate threads of those who crossed paths with Fred Rogers during his life, and a consistent message begins to surface. While from a contemporary viewpoint Fred Rogers’ wholesome and earnest persona might seem like a naive throwback to a forgotten, simpler time, it quickly becomes apparent his show wasn’t just an act. If anything, the program was a mirror of what he practiced in his everyday life. Rogers’ emphasis on contemplative reflection and a determination to make whoever he was talking to the complete center of his attention is a common thread in many of the conversations Wagner has.
Speaking with Bo Lozoff — who runs an ashram in North Carolina, does work with prisoners, and wrote a number of books favored by Rogers including “Deep And Simple” (natch) — we learn that silence, and taking a moment to dwell in it, was of key importance to the television host. Meanwhile, folks like the late Tim Russert and NPR‘s Susan Stamberg share how Rogers’ almost saint-like presence was both profoundly otherworldly and deeply humble. But it’s Stamberg who reminds us that it wasn’t just kids who benefited from Rogers’ wisdom. We’re taken back to special he did in the early ’80s, co-hosted by Stamberg and aimed at adults, about how to talk with your child about divorce. And what eventually unfolds, due to Rogers calming influence that compels people to open up, is less a how-to and more of an open forum (on live TV no less), with many sharing their experiences (something that “I’m Proud of You” author Tim Madigan relates in the film and in his book). It’s this transparency and directness that is one of the larger legacies left by Mr. Rogers. And indeed, “Nick News” host Linda Ellerbee reveals that Rogers’ insistence on speaking candidly to children about tough subjects inspired her work as well.
The narrow focus of “Mister Rogers & Me” is delivered in a concise film that runs just over eighty minutes, and as we mentioned, this isn’t a career retrospective so much as an encapsulation of a way of life and a code for living that Rogers gently thrust onto an entire generation (or two) of viewers. And thus, when the film shifts focus onto Wagner himself — who uses his brief relationship with Rogers to help propel the story — “Mister Rogers & Me” does lose a bit of momentum as we’re eager to return to learning more about the subject of the film. And the documentary’s very loose structure — it does feel like a grab bag of participants, rather than a carefully curated selection of guests — does make the movie feel rudderless at times. And yet, the structure is also strangely appropriate if only to illustrate how wide ranging Rogers’ influence was. But we still would’ve wished for a bit more connective tissue between the various sections of the film.
But these are minor complaints for what is a heartfelt project. It’s clear that Wagner was changed by meeting Rogers, and “Mister Rogers & Me” is a sort of communion for those whose lives were deeply impacted by “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and the enduring message: “I like you just the way you are.” As many note in the documentary, that is a sentiment we hear all too rarely in any sphere, public or private, these days. But Wagner’s film doesn’t treat that notion as quaint — instead, it emphasizes with great success that the “deep and simple” message is more important now than it ever has been. [B]
“Mister Rogers & Me” premieres tonight on PBS and is available on DVD and iTunes.