For decades Fred Rogers would invite viewers of his iconic program to join him for a visit to his neighbourhood. There you’d run across a variety of puppeteered characters, kindly visitors and moments of song and story that helped educate and entertain generations of children.
The easiest thing would have been to simply throw together a bunch of clips of Rogers, tie in some general talking head interviews and provide a nostalgic trip though the past. Superficially that’s the form that Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor? takes, yet thanks to the skills of this gifted, Oscar-winning filmmaker we’re treated to something far more extraordinary.
Rogers was not only a pioneer of television, he was evangelical about the medium’s capabilities to truly connect with young viewers in a way that was good not only for their development but for their society. Through impeccable storytelling Neville’s look at the man showcases not only a host but a profound thinker, one unafraid to use moments of quiet to say much, all while creating an environment where the dynamic between host and viewer collapsed into something far more profound.
Rogers used his show as a function of his ministry (he was ordained by the Presbyterian church who listed his assigned pulpit as “television”), yet this was in all aspects an ecumenical form of communication. Taking the “love thy neighbour” ethos to its logical conclusion, Rogers spend years honing a message of love and understanding, forming communities rather than breaking apart through misguidance or conflict. This wasn’t some utopic vision free from disorder, but instead an at times astonishingly adult way of communicating on television to young children.
It’s this paradox – at once being unafraid to talk death or assassination with youth while shielding out the more slapstick or clowning violence that characterized much of children’s entertainment – that’s deeply explored in Neville’s film. Rogers was both compassionate and conservative when that wasn’t a contradiction, on the one hand moved to act against violent or consumerist shows while crafting a space that nonetheless never shied away from the messiness of real life. The fact that he’d engage in such subjects so early in his career, pushing at boundaries that even now would be seen as some as pushing the envelope, illustrates wonderfully just how downright radical his approach was.
This dichotomy between the gentle, sweater wearing man and his push for publicly funded educational programming for children that would encourage them to strive towards acceptance, humility and compassion is carefully articulated in Neville’s work. Thousands of elements were mined in order to provide a look at the man that’s far from hagiographic, unafraid to deal with elements of his life and career that were far from rosy. His fellow contributors shed light on the not always easy goings on behind the scenes, and curators at the museum dedicated to his legacy equally avoid coming across as sycophantic.
Yet there’s no denying that this is the remarkable story of a remarkable man, made all the more compelling through examination of both his flaws and triumphs. This balance is incredibly hard to pull off, as the vast majority of such bio-docs can demonstrate, yet Neville’s work is elevated both by its keen and unflinching examination as well as a laser-like focus on the narrative flow of the work. Decidedly cinematic, the film manages to elevate the small screen’s tableau into far grander scope, benefiting tremendously by being screened as what’s hopefully a large and diverse audience. For just as the best cinematic docs are elevated by this shared experience, so to does Rogers’ story specifically lend itself to this kind of congregational experience.
Moving, magical, Morgan Neville’s magnificent Won’t You Be My Neighbour? is not only a wonderful testimony to the legacy of Mr. Rogers, it’s equally a template for how to accomplish a film of this nature. With stellar storytelling, there’s no better representation of the complexity of a subject that superficially seemed so simple than this work. It’s as comfortable as those shoes the host would slip on, yet throughout pokes and prods at not only our past expectations but how Rogers’ liturgy continues to shape modern generations and contradicts some of the more insidious and problematic injustices of our society.
A wonderful film crafted by a master of non-fiction, this is a truly great work that will speak to audiences young and old alike.