Won’t You Be My Neighbor? opens with a sentimental jump into that nostalgic pool of educational television that is Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. Behind the scenes footage finds kids enrapt and parents mesmerized, as current day interviewees wax on and on about the enigmatic statue of kindness Fred Rogers was. In your theater seat, the memories of mornings and late afternoon sessions with Mr. Rogers come pouring back into your mind as you try to reimagine the carpet, the chair, or the ottoman you sprawled out on while watching Daniel, King Friday, and Henrietta Pussycat in the Land of Make Believe with hypnotic intent. In a montage of clips from interviews scattered across his 40-year career, Mr. Rogers addresses the audience with one core message he emanated the entire time he had the keys to the kingdom.
“Love is at the center of everything. Love or the lack of it.”
It’s not very hard to imagine why more people haven’t heard about Mr. Rogers incredible life story. His shows were meant to be bite-sized morality nuggets, parsing out wrong and right for an extremely wide audience. His messages aimed to have something to tell toddlers and pre-teens alike, and while the show takes up a large part of young American lives it discreetly steps away as they mature into reality devouring teenagers and adults. It’s how he meant it to be, but this system largely relegates his immense talents to the shadows. Won’t You Be My Neighbor peers behind the curtain to reveal a life that affected millions while asking for nothing in return.
As one of the pioneers of children’s educational television, Mr. Rogers helped shape not just the entertainment industry, but entire concepts of children’s education that are still influential today in academia; embracing and captivating children by speaking to them with care and compassion on their own approachable level. While entirely endearing in a personal way, his methodical approach to accepting children of all shapes and sizes had strong political power throughout periods of American history like the civil rights movement and the AIDS crisis. His steady even approach never wavered in 40 years of broadcast, establishing a loving support system for all that was always available for any kid who needed it.
The film isn’t just a fluff piece. Won’t You Be My Neighbor dives into Mr. Rogers’ origins as a sickly child who dealt with bullying, and the eventual negative criticisms and parodies he harbored with his earnest and simple demeanor. The film touches on questions of sexuality and intention and how the world tried to label the man so they could understand just how anyone could be so incredibly kind. At the end of it all, the televised persona wasn’t really a persona at all. The reluctant star was simply an embodiment of virtue and wisdom now cynically considered to be long extinct.
Mr. Rogers life story isn’t filled with twists and turns, dramatic deaths or scandalous trysts. He led a simple life with a loving wife of nearly 60 years, a conservative wardrobe, and even the ability to maintain the exact same weight most of his life. An ordained minister, Mr. Rogers used his educational platform to extol the best virtues of the faith he stood for without any intended misdirection or heavy-handed explanation.
Throughout the films’ hour and a half run-time, the soundtrack undulates between quizzical delight and a sweet mellow wonder like that of a child learning his surroundings. It’s laced with the sadness of the world around it and the film almost leaves an abrupt hole in your heart with a yearning for another real-life super-hero like Fred Rogers. It’s a roller coaster of emotion and likely to help the elusive educational giant stay in your heart much longer than the show could have ever hoped for. The love he bore on his sleeve has never died out or blown away; it will always live on in the legacy he spent his life putting to tape.