There aren’t many things to be grateful for about 2018 as a cultural moment, but I will admit that my heart has been swelling when I think about how much wide audiences are embracing Won’t You By My Neighbor?. Weeks into its surprisingly strong run in New Orleans, I saw the film in a packed theater, the audience brimming with the most palpable enthusiasm I’ve witnessed for a film since Get Out. That’s remarkable for a small-scale documentary about a public broadcast television entertainer who’s been off the air for nearly two decades. Fred Rogers has always been that way, though. He had a hypnotic presence that could instantly lull audiences into a state of open, receptive awe, no matter what menial tasks he was performing for their entertainment. As a kid, some of my favorite segments of his long-running television show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, were moments when he would pull everyday objects out of a nondescript box and demonstrate the various things you can do with them. Against all logic, watching Fred Rogers play with a spool of string or a tiny toy car to pique his young viewers’ curiosity was somehow the most captivating thing in the world. It somewhat makes sense, then, that audiences would flock in droves to see a movie about the unusually talented man, whether to relive that captivation or to seek a better understanding of how he pulled it off. It also makes sense that Rogers’s sermons on love, kindness, empathy, and acceptance would beam out like a beacon of hope to modern audiences, as these grim times are in desperate need of a reminder of human goodness, especially reflected in a masculine figure. Still, it’s remarkable that a tiny documentary about such a seemingly non-commercial subject could generate the attention & box office numbers Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is earning; but Fred Rogers has always been a remarkable figure in that way, regardless of time or context.
As a public persona, Fred Rogers was an easy man to love, but a difficult one to fully understand. Rumors about his sexuality and urban legends about his supposed background as a violent military man always swirled around his public image, because no one knew exactly how to process the kind, empathetic, vulnerable version of masculinity he presented onscreen in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? isn’t especially interested in digging beyond Rogers’s surface eccentricities, except to claim that the version of himself that he presented on his show is very true to who he was in real life. Instead of exploring Fred Rogers’s psyche, the film is more a document of a decades-spanning art project, the educational children’s show that earned Rogers fame & adoration. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a philosophically-minded program wherein Rogers intended to conspicuously mold children into feeling loved & accepted and becoming better people. With a seething hatred for the sugary chaos of typical children’s programming (including a visual potshot at the undeniably praiseworthy Pee-wee’s Playhouse in the doc), Rogers sought to slow down the pace of young viewers’ entertainment so that he could connect with his audience on an personal level and let them know they are accepted & valued. Instead of exploiting children’s television as consumer recruitment the way too may programs do, he used the simple means of D.I.Y puppet shows & Daniel Johnston style-piano ballads to stimulate children’s imagination & incite them to emotionally process difficult internal crises like low self-esteem, anger, and political anxiety over events as wide ranging as Bobby Kennedy’s assassination & 9/11 (events kids likely witnessed vicariously, but never had explained to them in a direct, useful way). The most of Fred Rogers’s inner life we see in the film is how in how he expresses his own anxieties & self-doubt through an increasingly raggedy sock puppet avatar named Daniel Striped Tiger. The documentary is mostly concerned with a television show he wrote, produced, and performed with an auteurist vision for thousands of episodes over mutliple decades. As with before the film, the Fred Rogers we’re allowed to know is the Fred Rogers who comes through in his work.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is not at all shy about clashing the values of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood with the amoral shithole of our modern, Rogersless world. Visual parallels are drawn between presidents Nixon & Trump to illustrate how little has changed since the 1960s. Puppet shows from the series about a paranoid dictator building a wall to prevent change in his kingdom are presented only for them to hang in the air with appropriate heft. Even more directly, the film asks in blatant terms whether Fred Rogers’s attempt to positively influence America was a success or a failure. It’s easy to see that audiences were mesmerized by his mere presence; children’s eyes widen with discovery & awe as he speaks to them with incredible patience & empathy. It’d also be difficult to spend any two minutes revisiting that awe without welling with tears, as Rogers’s presence still holds that power, even with the remove of this death and the intellectual distance of a documentary lens. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? could easily coast on the immediate power of Rogers’s naturally generated awe, something it flirts with in its rich orchestral score and its storybook illustrations of Daniel Striped Tiger navigating the world as Rogers’s avatar. Since this in no way a fearless dive into the secrets & psyche of Fred Rogers as a private person, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? effortlessly excels as a document of a low-budget children’s show hosted by an ordained minister – part art project and part philosophical quest to reshape children’s minds & (by extension) the future of the country. It’s daring, then, for the film to ask whether that project was a success or a failure in the long run, whether this well-intentioned experiment in mild-mannered, radical children’s programming actually changed the culture it miraculously managed to burrow itself into. It’s daring because, looking around at the modern world (even including the tiny indie theater my audience trashed at our screening without picking up after themselves), Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood would appear to be a noble failure. Maybe this documentary’s reminder of the attempt will reinvigorate its cause. There are certainly enough eyes on the screen for it to be worth a try. Either way, just because an experiment fails doesn’t mean the attempt wasn’t worth admiration, a sentiment Fred Rogers (and Daniel Striped Tiger) would likely echo if they were still around to do so.