D: Morgan Neville / 94m
With: Fred Rogers (archive footage), Joanne Rogers, John Rogers, Jim Rogers, Tom Junod, Junlei Li, Joe Negri, David Newell, François Clemmons, Nick Tallo, Yo-Yo Ma, Margaret Whitmer
For someone whose primary career was in television, Fred Rogers wasn’t its biggest fan when he first encountered it at his parents’ home in 1951. Originally planning to enter the seminary – he was eventually ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1963 – Rogers took up the challenge of television because he felt it could be a useful educational tool for children. After a stint in New York, Rogers went to work at Pittsburgh’s public television station, WQED. Soon he had co-created The Children’s Corner, an elaborate (for its time) puppet show that introduced many characters that would stay with him for the rest of his career. In 1963 he was contracted to work on a new show for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation called Misterogers; it was the first time Rogers appeared on camera, something that would prove to be a wise decision on CBC’s part. The show ran until 1967, at which point Rogers returned to Pittsburgh and began to develop Misterogers into a new programme for the National Education Television network. And that show was eventually called Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood…
One of the most amazing moments in Won’t You Be My Neighbor? occurs in the wake of a brief archive clip of Robert F. Kennedy. We next see one of Rogers’ puppet characters, King Friday XIII, ask what the word “assassination” means. It’s a tribute to Rogers’ skill as a children’s educator that he could raise such a topic on his show and discuss it in such a way that it became accessible to his young audience, and in a way that they could understand. Rogers would introduce other serious topics over the years, but as Morgan Neville’s heartfelt documentary explains, it was all in the context of helping children make sense of the world around them. Rogers was unique in this, and he was doing so at a time when children’s television was becoming overloaded with fast-paced cartoons and wacky character-based shows such as The Banana Splits. Intent on doing his own thing in his own time, Rogers wasn’t afraid to break the rules by being reflective or pensive, or even plain silent. And he did it all in a friendly, low-key manner that was also sincere, honest, and considering his religious background, refreshingly free of references to faith or spiritual matters. He was a remarkable man, and he had a remarkable effect on everyone around him, including (in another amazing moment) Senator John Pastore.
In exploring the life and work of Fred Rogers, Morgan Neville has made a documentary that not only celebrates the man and his influence on millions of children, but places him in a very important historical context. The late Sixties and early Seventies were a tumultuous period in US history, and through the reminiscences of his wife Joanne, and others who worked with him at the time, Rogers’ determination not to leave children out of what was happening in the world is brought sincerely and honestly to the forefront. His shows were educational and entertaining, and enchanting too, their stripped-back simplicity still unequalled to this day. What also comes across is just how likeable he was, and how some of his own fears and concerns were expressed through his puppet characters, a way for the man himself to make sense of the world. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a potent, enervating documentary that packs several emotional wallops during a run time that doesn’t feel rushed (like Rogers’s shows), and which ends on a perfect grace note. In honouring the man, Neville’s movie, like Rogers himself, also honours all those children he had such a profound effect on. And that’s an amazing achievement…
Rating: 9/10 – one of the best movies of 2018, and in any category, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a beautifully observant and wonderfully poignant look at a man whose impact on children and their emotional welfare and development can’t be underestimated; snubbed by this year’s Academy Awards – what is wrong with them? – this is genuinely moving in places, and a fitting tribute to Fred Rogers, the zip-up sweater man.