‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ Movie Review: Documentary Keeps Fred Rogers’ Legacy Of Love Alive
If you remember only one thing about Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, or about its subject, Fred Rogers, it ought to be “143.” That is the weight, in pounds, that the beanpole host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, claimed to be, but more importantly, it is shorthand for the most important thing one human being can say to another: “I love you.” “Love,” as Rogers was fond of saying, “is at the root of everything.” Any work of art that is sufficiently suffused with love is something to be cherished. For director Morgan Neville, this is clearly a labor of love. For Rogers’ colleagues and family members who are interviewed throughout the film, there are few people they have loved as much as him. And for Rogers himself, love was the guiding philosophy of his entire life.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? argues for the continued relevance of Rogers’ message, though it does not exactly state that purpose outright. In a time when incivility is so prevalent in public life, a film like this cannot help but be pointed. Neville conveys this lesson by spotlighting key moments in the history of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood that did their part to affect hearts and minds. There is the episode in which Rogers and Officer Clemmons (a black man) cool off their feet together in a kiddie pool, a gentle rejoinder to segregation laws. There is the duet of “It’s You I Like” with Jeff Erlanger, a boy confined to a wheelchair, thus conveying that the differently abled are not so scary. And there are any number of other moments meant to offer a gentler alternative to the children’s programming that Rogers saw as overly loud and violent. Even at times when he had to speak up, as when he testified to a 1969 Senate subcommittee to request increased funding for public television, he drew people in by remaining mild.
There was something so singularly gentle and open-hearted about Rogers that drew young children in, but also unnerved adults who did not know him very well. Surely there must be something sinister lurking underneath that man who speaks impossibly measured tones, those who have been rendered cynical by the worst life has to offer have reasoned. But in fact no skeletons have been discovered in the closet of this Presbyterian minister/TV host, and thus why his legacy has continued to endure.
The last act of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? takes a somewhat surprising dark turn, as Rogers takes stock of how the world has turned out in his old age. He did not become cynical in his final days, but he was quite weary. In his seventies, he was not up for reckoning with the tragedy of the 9/11 attacks, and doubt creeped in about whether his life’s work had been worth it. Neville chooses to conclusively end on a happier note, with Rogers’ loved ones assured of his value. The world is certainly still far from perfect, but if there are people who have made it just a little bit better through the way that they lived, then Fred Rogers is almost certainly among them.
Starring: Fred Rogers, Joanne Rogers, François Scarborough Clemmons, Joe Negri, David Newell
Director: Morgan Neville
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Rating: PG-13 for Declining to Ignore the Scarier Parts of Life to Protect the Kids
Release Date: June 8, 2018 (Limited)