From its first episode on February 19, 1968, “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood” wasted no time getting serious in the land of make-believe. Puppet ruler King Friday XIII, described by soothing host Fred Rogers as “one of the few remaining benevolent despots,” grows wary of the people outside his kingdom and builds a wall to keep them out, yielding peaceful protests from his citizens. Sound familiar?
In “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” the touching and insightful survey of Rogers’ decades-spanning career from Oscar-winning director Morgan Neville (“Twenty Feet From Stardom”), the filmmaker highlights Rogers’ capacity to explore complex themes through the lens of a kid’s program that took a dead-serious approach to his young viewers’ needs. Though Rogers died in 2003, he’s a ubiquitous presence throughout the movie, exhumed by ample archival footage and the plentiful anecdotes from family, friends, and experts demystifying his legacy.
In today’s media-saturated climate, Rogers’ idealism is hard to understand, particularly his assertion that television could “build a community” rather than dumbing it down. Educational peers position him in the context of other celebrity experts on child education like Dr. Spock and Erik Erikson, but he was also an ordained minister who brought a welcome alternative to the traditional televangelist approach. As a fellow minister and friend asserts, Rogers managed to preach positive values without falling back on dogmatic, oratorical language. Instead, Rogers defines his goal in one crucial interview as helping children “through some difficult modulations in life.”
It’s this epiphany that enables him to explore topics ranging from assassination (in the wake of the Robert F. Kennedy killing) to divorce, holding court with a curious audience that formed its perception of the world through his deliberate explanations. Examples abound of close relationships that Rogers maintained with his viewers, including one touching moment when he writes an ailing child onto the show. (This writer was among the innumerable child fans who wrote the star a letter and received a personal response.) Rogers was, in this context, a proto-YouTube star, going beyond the one-way relationship of the television set to bring his viewers deeper into his world.
Despite the celebratory tone, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” shies away from the hagiographic trappings of this adorable material. Rogers’ gentle mannerisms and shy grin have been the target of endlessly cynical interpretations, and the movie confronts the bulk of them, yielding the takeaway that sordid theories about Rogers say more about society than the man himself. Discussing rumors that Rogers was gay, regular star François Clemmons — who was closeted for the first decade of the show — argues, “If he was gay, I would’ve known.”
Nor does Rogers seem to have used his program to obscure devious behavior. Instead, this Christian conservative (who did, for a time, struggle to accept homosexuality) emerges through his family’s accounts as a man who repressed his heaviest emotions to maintain an air of calmness; with time, the repression took its toll, and one revealing personal letter discovered by his institute suggests he struggled with depression. Passing details about growing up in the Rogers household illustrate just how much the show dominated his world, as one grown son recalls that Rogers would speak in the voice of batty puppet Lady Elaine whenever he said something that worked against his squeaky-clean image. “It was a little tough,” one of Rogers’ offspring says, “having the second Christ as my dad.”
Rogers may have been trapped by his utopian bubble, but he excelled at inviting others in. Footage from a Senate hearing in which his testimony scores $20 million for PBS illustrates his capacity for coaching just about anyone to recall the innocence of childhood. Yet he’s visibly angered by “Saturday Night Live” spoofs of his routine, and frustrated by the onslaught of crass children’s entertainment as the era of “G.I. Joe” and “Transformers” take hold. Childhood, he argues, is “not all clowns and balloons.” As Rogers’ story makes its way to the 21st century, the movie hints at the emergence of a climate so cruel and indifferent it simply can’t process Rogers’ sincere intentions. For all its stirring moments, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” emanates a bittersweet vibe.
Neville excels at capturing Rogers’ fragile innocence, though the filmmaker overstates it in recurring animated sequences in which Rogers’ emotional turmoil is explored through an animated version of Daniel Tiger, the curious puppet with whom Rogers shared a symbiotic relationship. The story leaves some lingering questions about Rogers’ own childhood, only vaguely hinting that he struggled with being ostracized in his youth despite a wealthy upbringing.
However, no matter how much it celebrates Rogers’ career, the movie doesn’t sugarcoat the rough patches — including a misguided attempt to upgrade his contemplative sensibilities for an adult audience with the short-lived “Old Friends, New Friends,” and his dwindling motivations during the twilight years of his career (9/11 hit him hard). For the many generations that grew up with Rogers’ friendly face as their guide, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” is like peering into the past with renewed clarity and wishing his civility had caught on. Generations of children have taken Mr. Rogers for granted, and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” is a powerful reminder that he was either way ahead of his time, or too late.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor” premiered in the Documentary Premieres section of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Focus Features will release it later this year.