Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018) – dir. Morgan Neville

Even as someone who waivers on religion, I’m endlessly fascinated by Jesus Christ. Rather, I’m endlessly fascinated by the way we envision him and are meant to value his humanity, or at very least as a literary figure. With Christ’s supposed perfection in mind, how does someone whose unfailing goodness defines them make for a compelling character? Though difficult, such dramatization is not impossible–the best depictions of Christ coming from Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, Matt Stone’s and Trey Parker’s hilarious iteration on South Park, and Christopher Moore’s origin story version in his novel Lamb. While very few feature Mel Gibson beating the Son of Man to death for three hours, they do offer up a figure who feels totally honest and relatable.

While Fred Rogers did not die for our sins, bring people back from the dead, or leave a legacy that would have repeated world-shattering consequences, he is arguably the most Christlike public figure in the western world. And much like the common image of Jesus as a humble, compassionate, infallible deity, we desperately need someone like Fred Rogers. This is probably the best excuse for Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Morgan Neville’s workmanlike take on the career of television icon Mr. Rogers. Simple, often frustrating, but undoubtedly moving, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is eerily prescient, yet timelessly joyful.

The most glaring aspect of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Is how unambitious Neville is with the content. Structurally, the film has a loose through line following Fred Rogers as a public access auteur to the voice of reassurance for a nation in shock, bordering on episodic. Even still, the film will jump around to points in Rogers’s childhood or earlier parts in his career to inform whatever conversation is taking place. Neville interviews Rogers’s family and former co-workers, none of which offer anything that isn’t already on the public record. A minor centerpiece for the film revolves around Rogers going before congress to advocate for funding towards public broadcasting, eventually swaying the thick-skinned Senator John O. Pastore. The footage of that hearing went viral years ago, and despite how satisfying the victory still is, does not offer anything new to the narrative of Fred Rogers. In that way, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? can feel hollow.

What does this documentary have to offer, then? Despite not being exceptional as storytelling, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? does have a neat story at the core, living and dying on the personality of Fred Rogers. No one has a bad thing to say about Rogers. Everyone from his wife and kids to Yo Yo Ma has only praise. The single point of controversy involves Rogers asking actor Francois Clemmons to remain in the closet after Clemmons is seen at a gay bar. But even such a big ask feels insignificant. Rogers doesn’t fire him, nor does he necessarily treat him any different. Clemmons still cites Rogers as the closest thing he had to a father figure. A lifelong Republican, and an ordained minister, Rogers loves women, people of color, the differently-abled, etc. He’s loving and accepting in all the ways he’s been mythologized as being.

Of course, Rogers loves and fights for children most of all. Mr. Rogers uses his shows, particularly Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, to tell stories and deals with topics that he knows adults mention when kids are in the room, and offers pared-down parables to explain them. An early episode includes King Friday the 13th guarding the border, to deter anyone hoping to make changes in his kingdom. This is meant to mirror the Vietnam Conflict, but strikes incredibly close to home with the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance, family-separating immigration practices. A similarly relevant moment sees Rogers and Koko the gorilla spending time with one another, with Rogers in awe of Koko, and Koko completely smitten. If Rogers has any innate gift, he is endowed with an ability to connect with anyone and anything.

Still, being O-negative personified, Rogers feels largely unknowable. He doesn’t seem as though he’s hiding any bodies, nor is he obfuscating any selfish intentions. Instead, Rogers buttons himself up, on top of his cozy cardigan. No one doubts the authenticity of his career’s mission. No one thinks he has grand ambitions beyond creating a world that is more emotionally open and aware. Rogers is frank, but composed when describing his disdain for other kinds of television. What he sees as a tool for improving lives, others are using for slapstick and high octane stimulation that juxtaposes Rogers’s own reserved, lo-fi production. When Rogers is eventually parodied, he only pays mind if the message is being mocked. Footage of everyone from Eddie Murphy to Johnny Carson comically riffing on Mr. Rogers might have been funny if the film hadn’t spent so much time endearing us to Rogers. Instead of being humorous, the sketches come off as perverse and sickening, bordering on bullying. Though one could complain about many aspects of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, moments like these sneak up on a person.

The closest we get to understanding who Fred Rogers really is comes from his wife, and the notion that he spoke through his puppets, depending on what he was feeling. Whether this is the anxiety-prone Daniel Tiger, or the domineering King Friday, Rogers can never be his own mouthpiece. He is honest about the message, but not totally straightforward about the burden he feels. One wonders if Rogers throws himself so much into his show that he is the work, work that seems more and more pointless as he grows older. But Rogers goes on anyway. If only he could see the millions of eyes glued to him. If only he knew what a light he’d be in such dark, divisive times. In this way, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a sobering, veritably cleansing experience. The film, or more accurately Rogers, serve as a reminder of how kindness and patience shape a generation, and how one person who made these qualities their life’s work can reverberate long after they’re gone. Mr. Rogers lingers, more than the man could’ve hoped.

Rating – 8.2/10

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