I don’t know who would dare say anything negative about a Mister Rogers documentary, and I’m glad nobody seems to be doing so. A retrospective on Fred Rogers and his legacy is exactly what American audiences need in this divisive world. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a warm hug of a documentary and a beacon of hope for what society can be.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? focuses on Fred Rogers, who many of us grew up watching on television. We all know him as the pioneering host of the long-running PBS children’s program, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. He revolutionized the idea of children’s television, and what it should be, and in doing so, also helped many parents raise their children while creating an empire of his own. Through interviews with his family, the actors on his show, and many others that he impacted, we learn a lot more about the figure we thought we knew all there was to know about.
This is one of the most powerful documentaries I’ve seen in a long time, mostly because of how timely and relevant it is. There’s a point made in the last third, which asks if there’s room for nice people on television anymore. The weight of that question stings. I don’t think there will ever be anyone quite like Fred Rogers. He’s a man who helped raise many of us through television, and anyone who’s been moved by his kind nature will be profoundly affected by this movie.
Morgan Neville, who directed the powerful 20 Feet From Stardom has a knack for emotionally compelling documentaries, but also for picking fascinating subjects. Rogers’ life and work feel more relevant and vital than ever, and he passed away 15 years ago. It benefits from good timing, but there could never be a wrong time for this film’s message. Not only did he validate complicated emotions in general, but he validated the millions of children who grew up on his program. You leave the film wondering what kind of subjects he might talk about today, and how helpful that would be for today’s generation of kids. Some of them could really use the kind of guidance he offered.
In the end, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? begs audiences to do better. It’s a soaring reminder of what can be achieved when we treat those around us, not just like neighbors, but as friends. It’s a shameless tearjerker, but you’ll walk out feeling hopeful and enlightened. Even if you didn’t have a personal connection to his work, you leave this film feeling gratitude to Fred Rogers for the work he has accomplished. It’s a life-affirming message of love and kindness, in a time when the world really needs it.