Morgan Neville’s documentary on Fred Rogers, the creator and star of the long-running PBS children’s program “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” celebrates him as a man of simple but profound beliefs and unwavering principle who hoped to have a beneficial impact upon a whole generation of American children that, in his view, were threatened by increasingly harmful elements in the society around them. It is, in fact, a worshipful film that could arguably serve as a brief for canonization, were it not for the fact that Rogers was a Presbyterian (and an ordained minister in that church, no less) rather than a Catholic.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t some critical remarks about Rogers in the film. Toward the start we’re treated to observations from a few cranky right-wing commentators, mostly from Fox News, who berate him for brainwashing American children into thinking that they were worthy of love just as they are. In their view his words turned his pint-sized listeners into adolescents burdened with a feeling of self-absorption and entitlement.
But such negative remarks are kept to an absolute minimum here. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is an unabashed love letter to the man, whom colleagues like “Officer” François Clemmons, “Deliveryman Mr. McFeely” David Newell and “Handyman” Joe Negri, as well as numerous stagehands and on-set collaborators. describe as the same person in real life as he was on the program—kind, considerate and polite. Rogers’ widow Joanne, as well as his sons James and John, echo that sentiment, although their recollections are at times cloaked in gentle humor at his idiosyncracies.
The focus of the documentary is the unlikely success of the program, which one observer describes as breaking every rule thought to be necessary for popularity with the kids of the late sixties and early seventies. As fashioned by Rogers, who was trained not only in theology but in childhood development, it was a defiant rejection of the children’s programming of the era, which he considered a bad influence because of its penchant for noise, demeaning behavior, and violence (he would be especially scornful of superheroes, whose feats he thought encouraged kids to emulate them with potentially tragic results). He chose to opt for something that spoke to young children honestly about serious topics like death, illness and family problems while encouraging them to treat others with respect and control their tempers.
Rogers did not hesitate to take on very dark subjects. After Robert Kennedy’s murder, he had the Daniel Tiger puppet—which, it’s explained, actually embodied his own childhood fears and insecurities—inquire about the meaning of the word “assassination.” After the Challenger disaster, he took on that tragedy too. And he could deal with social issues in an indirect but powerful fashion. At a time when African-Americans were being chased from all-white swimming pools, he invited the local cop, played by Clemmons, a black man, to soak his feet in the wading pool beside his. (He supported Clemmons, who is gay, throughout the years, though he warned him about attending gay clubs. There were protests against Rogers because he was tolerant toward gays.) And he invited Jeff Erlanger, a boy in a wheelchair, to share a song with him, a moment Erlanger’s parents remember with a glow. (Erlanger himself returned years later to appear at a tribute for Rogers, much to his delight.) Cellist Yo-Yo Ma recalls with amazement Rogers’ interview technique, which involved serious, involved listening, both to the music he played and his verbal responses.
The picture is at pains to show how educational the program was as well, teaching lessons in a simple, inventive fashion, often accompanied by one of Rogers’ self-composed songs. A song also plays a central role in one of the most famous moments of Rogers’ life, when he appeared before Senator John Pastore’s subcommittee in 1969, at a time when funding for PBS was on the chopping block. It was his recitation of the lyrics he had written about controlling one’s anger that convinced Pastore, until then an opponent of funding, to immediately change his mind.
Neville’s film is of course episodic, but it does a fine job of assembling a wide array of archival material—clips and stills—to cover Rogers’ life and career, and integrating them all with modern interview excerpts. (Jeff Malmberg and Aaron Wickenden were the editors, and Graham Willoughby shot the new material.)
Those who grew up watching Fred Rogers and the puppets he voiced for the show’s visits to the Land of Make-Believe (all of them, it’s said, representing aspects of his personality) will, of course, find “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” especially winning—a return to a simpler, more comforting time and place. His hope that he was helping to shape a kinder, gentler generation of Americans—if our present socio-political climate is any indication—has gone unfulfilled. But Neville’s loving portrait of Rogers is a fitting tribute to a genuinely good man who chose to offer a positive alternative to what he considered the unhealthy aspects of the children’s entertainment of his time. Many would argue that we could use someone like him even more now.