At the Movies
A Paean to Common Decency
By Noah Gittell
“Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” first aired in 1968, and yet the new documentary about Fred Rogers life and legacy has arrived right on time. As the eyes of the nation turn to thousands of children detained against their will by government officials, here is a portrait of a public figure perhaps more sensitive to the needs of children than any other in history.
Yes, the warm and fuzzy new documentary about the determined goodness of Fred Rogers feels hyper-relevant. In his first week on the air, he did a show about a border wall. Towards the end, he spent a televised hour with Koko, the sign-language-speaking ape who captured America’s imagination in the 1970s and died last week. Then there is one of Rogers’s most famous moments – aired in full here – when he testified before a Congressional committee and single-handedly persuaded a crusty old U.S. Senator to maintain PBS’s funding.
But beyond topical items, it is Rogers’s utter decency that stands out in our era of apathy and hatred. “Back then, it wasn’t weird to have a guy like him on the air,” says one of his crew members. That’s hard to believe. The film by Oscar-winner Morgan Neville (“20 Feet from Stardom”) depicts the longtime children’s show host as a uniquely empathetic individual, but it smartly shies away from hagiography, finding the human elements in a near godlike character.
In fact, Rogers was ready to enter the seminary when he saw his first TV show and decided the new medium was a more effective way to spread his personal gospel of kindness. His show was an immediate success even though, as noted by his longtime producer, it violated all the rules of successful television. It had a modest set, cheap effects, and absolutely zero sensationalism. This was by design, of course. Rogers believed above all else in being honest with his young audience and providing them with wholesome and educational entertainment. Nothing else mattered. The modesty of his approach spoke to the seriousness of his intent, as the film places him amongst the other champions of early childhood education, such as Benjamin Spock and T. Berry Brazelton, that rose to prominence in his era.
Where the film is most revelatory, however, for those who have only faint memories of his work is how he addressed political issues in an inclusive way. When Bobby Kennedy was shot, he did an episode on assassination. When white supremacists were violently kicking African-Americans out of public swimming pools, he invited Officer Clemens, a regular character on his show who happened to be African-American, to cool his feet in a kiddie pool with the host. In this era of polarizing politics, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” makes kindness and decency look like ancient concepts, and ones we are in deep need of reclaiming
Although the film never strays far from its glowing portrayal of Rogers, it does wade into some darker themes. Late in his life, Rogers was asked to come back to TV to talk to children about 9/11, but he appears weak and shaken in the clips, either by age or a despair brought on by the tragedy. At other points, the film looks back into his past to examine the roots of his determined decency, unearthing a child who was weakened by frequent sickness and subject to intense bullying.
Still, lots of us get sick and are bullied, and few stay as closely in touch with their inner child as Fred Rogers. What is it that made him tick? The film doesn’t ever quite provide answers — instead, it’s content to revel in his greatness — but it leads us to the right mysteries. In a key sequence, several figures ask the questions many have asked over the years: Is he the real deal? Can he really be that decent, or is it all an act? Tellingly, the children, who can spot a phony quicker than any polygraph test, never consider this. They know the genuine article when they see it.
My Rating: See it in the Theater