Summer time is movie blockbuster time, but for those who are searching for a film that doesn’t depict the end of the universe (like any Marvel offering), try “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” the documentary about Fred Rogers, the creator of the long-running “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” children’s show which aired for more than 30 years on PBS from 1968-2001.
How refreshing to see a portrait of a public figure that doesn’t tear apart the image of the person being examined.
Spoiler alert: It turns out that Mr. Rogers the TV personality was identical to Mr. Rogers the human being.
While I was too old to watch “Mister Rogers” when it first aired, I had a perception of him as a benevolent TV personality who oversaw a little show done with inexpensive sets and sock puppets. This documentary reveals the thoughtfulness behind his mindset.
Before conceiving his show, Rogers is shown in an old black and white clip talking directly to the camera, musing out loud while on a piano about what he would like to do for children and how he would approach such an endeavor.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” will make you feel guilty for not appreciating or realizing that Fred Rogers, an ordained minister and amateur child psychologist, was quite talented, writing 900 shows and 300 songs. He took his job seriously and made it clear that others should likewise be responsible in developing tasteful television shows for children in a comforting and nurturing way; he disapproved of most children’s programming which focused on frenetic and insulting rather than calm and uplifting material.
In a tightly compacted 90 minutes, which includes new interviews with his widow and grown sons, a sense of “wow, what a good man he was” overwhelms you. Through a television screen, he made a direct connection to youngsters by emphasizing their uniqueness at the same time acknowledging their universal fears. Rogers did not shy away from confronting mature issues such as racism, war, and death.
When observing him interact with kids in personal appearances, he always gives his full attention to what they have to say, something few adults do. Too many parents ignore their children instead of interact with them, leaving them alone to their own devices, literally.
To hear him speak so eloquently and extemporaneously in front of a U.S. senate committee on funding for Public Broadcasting in 1969 is remarkable. Mr. Rogers was on a mission to ensure there would be at least one decent TV show for kids on the air.
There are many moments in the film when a viewer’s eyes will fill with tears. The most poignant one comes near the end when you hear Fred Rogers’ voice asking the audience to take a minute “to think about those who have helped you become who you are today. Some of them may be here right now. Some may be far away. Some may even be in Heaven. But wherever they are, if they’ve loved you, and encouraged you, and wanted what was best in life for you, they’re right inside yourself.”
To ask such a profound question, and to grant permission to have a minute of silence to think of that person encapsulates the soul of Fred Rogers, a humanitarian for all of us.
However, the saddest part of seeing the movie is that you are overcome with a sense of loss that there is no Mr. Rogers for children anymore. The positive response to this documentary is proof that people crave someone like him especially in these fractured times. Who is the savior today in the realm of children’s programming? The void is heartbreaking.