I first saw Morgan Neville’s new documentary about the cardigan-clad public-television personality Mr. Rogers back in January at the Sundance Film Festival. And I can honestly say that I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. One reason is that it’s just a really good movie. Another may be because 2018 has been the most divisive year that a lot of us have lived through. Our politics and our discourse — even in matters as trivial as pop culture — seem to have gone toxic. It makes you hold onto any shred of empathy or kindness you can find. That’s why I keep flashing back to Won’t You Be My Neighbor? It’s like a security blanket for our troubled times.
Neville, who won an Oscar for his 2013 doc 20 Feet from Stardom, hasn’t made a flashy movie here. It’s an intimate profile of a simple — and, let’s admit it, pretty square — guy who beamed childlike innocence and everyday goodness into our living rooms for 40 years. Through archival interviews and well-curated clips from his show, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, we watch him encouraging generations of kids to use their imaginations, helping them to grow up to become better human beings. Looking at the handmade sets now, it’s sort of surprising how cheap the show’s production values were. But the lessons taught there were priceless.
Trained as a Presbyterian minister in Pittsburgh, Fred Rogers possessed Zen-like patience and, if you were lucky enough to grow up with him, he made you believe that he was your best friend. Every day, he’d walk through the front door of his TV-set home and project calmness through the simple act of changing into a zip-up sweater and sneakers and letting you know that, for a little while, there’s no one else he’d rather have with him in his land of make-believe.
Beginning in 1968, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was a world of puppets, trolleys, and invaluable lessons that showed us how to navigate the difficulties and frustrations of being a kid. It was an inclusive sort of utopia. And Rogers seemed to see his work as seriously as his pint-sized audience did. This was his missionary work. In one scene, Rogers’ son talks to the camera about how much his father gave to that mission — and how little was left to give by the time he got home. “I sometimes wondered myself how he ticked,” he says. “It was a little tough for me to have the second Christ as my dad.”
Interviews like that give us a small peek behind the wholesome curtain — even if what’s back there is mostly more wholesomeness. Still, the most powerful scene in this beautiful, moving film comes from a congressional hearing in the ‘60s where the issue of cutting $20 million from PBS’ budget is being debated and seems inevitable. Rogers sits down before this august group of congressmen, including an old-school battle ax named Sen. John Pastore, who seem to have already made up their minds to hack away at public broadcasting. Rogers is calm. And he asks Pastore if he can recite the words of a song he sings to his kids on the show. When he finishes, the senator seems on the brink of tears. He smiles and says, “Well, it looks like you just earned 20 million dollars.” Just try not to get choked up. A