If you ever thought Mister Rogers was too good to be true, just know this -- he was.
In “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” a documentary so loving it should have been a PBS fundraiser, we discover plenty about the minister who merely wanted children to feel protected. While writer/director Morgan Neville admits some think the children’s television host was responsible for an era of entitlement, it’s clear Fred Rogers didn’t have some grand master plan that would somehow subvert the country.
Clips from the seemingly slow series show how he preached tolerance, not superiority, and how the message resonated with the very young.
Moments (like a visit with a wheelchair-bound Jeffrey Erlanger) will make you cry; others (like a Daniel Tiger dialogue that seems downright suicidal) will make you wonder if Rogers wasn’t using the show as his own therapy session.
Neville reveals some of the inspiration behind the puppet characters (his sister prompted the evil queen) and how, as a child, he got the idea for some of the show’s themes. At the beginning of the stunningly simple documentary, Rogers talks about modulation while sitting at the piano. It’s a rather heady discussion considering the outcome, but it shows how contemplative he really was. The big showpiece is his testimony before a Senate committee about to pull the funding for PBS. He states his case – understandably – and wins over the chair and the rapt audience.
“I think it’s wonderful,” Sen. John Pastore said after hearing the lyrics to one of the songs. “Looks like you just earned the $20 million.”
The scene points up the difference in politicians then and now. Friends and family members (including Rogers’ wife Joanne) say he would be angered by the unwillingness of elected officials to sit down and compromise.
The film shows other seminal moments (following the death of Robert Kennedy, the days after 9-11) that revealed how effective Rogers was at conveying the “you are loved message.”
It even traffics in a bit of behind-the-scenes foolishness and trivia. Rogers weighed 143 pounds all of his adult life. He used the number to stand for “I love you” – each number represents the letters in the three words.
While “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” doesn’t answer all questions (Did his sons go in the business? What specifically did he die of? What did his parents do?) it does approach some of the most common ones.
Rogers viewed his work as ministry and, yes, it shows – even if you didn’t subscribe to his methods. When a child stares at one of his puppets and acts as if it’s real, you can see the power of his process.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” prompts plenty of tears. Some come in unlikely places. Others are just where they need to be.
At the film’s end, Rogers makes a request of a graduating class that he used in many other situations. After interviewing him, I was asked to do the same and it has stuck with me ever since.
Seeing it in the film opened the waterworks, making “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” one of those small gems that deserves to be seen.