In 1967, when “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” begins, Fred Rogers had been working in local Pittsburgh television and had attended the Presbyterian seminary when he began to conceptualize children’s programming that spoke thoughtfully and usefully to the emotional needs of a young audience. In a black-and-white clip of Rogers playing the piano, he compares musical modulations to the developmental stages of infants, toddlers and youngsters who, up until that point, had mostly been targeted by producers as a market to be molded and manipulated. “Maybe this is too philosophical,” he muses while he plays and thinks out loud. But he was convinced that, “what we see and hear on the screen becomes who we are.”
Anyone who came of age or reared children in the 1960s and 1970s knows what came next: “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” became an enormous success and cultural force, offering kids a safe refuge while the outside world — and sometimes their own families — were buffeted by strife and social change. With his singsong voice and reassuring demeanor, Fred Rogers presented a benign, maybe even milquetoasty figure in his cardigan and lace-up sneakers. Underneath the bland exterior, he was acting as an ambassador for groundbreaking work in child psychology and what we now call media literacy, simply by acknowledging children’s fears and insecurities, and gently prodding them to question the values they were being sold elsewhere on the TV dial.
As those values became more vapid, violent and cynical, Rogers’s mission went from benevolently heroic to virtually Sisyphean: “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” revisits the episode, aired almost exactly 50 years ago to the day, when he threaded his audience through the meaning of “assassination” after the death of Robert F. Kennedy. As something of an elder statesman of thoughts and feelings, he helped the nation process the Challenger tragedy in 1986; by 2001, when he was called upon to speak about the 9/11 attacks, he’s clearly beset by doubt, if not in himself then in a world that despite his most honorable efforts, seems not to have heard a word he’s been saying for 30 years. In addition to filmed interviews with Rogers, who died in 2003, Neville includes the reminiscences of his wife, sons and colleagues, as well as an impressive amount of archival footage from early shows and appearances (many of which will induce copious tears).
The unspoken question that animates “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is what Fred Rogers would make of the present day, when the culture seems to have congealed into a permanent state of outrage, vulgarity and mutual intolerance. Neville ingeniously constructs his film to tell many stories: the little-engine-that-could tale of how the laughably low-tech “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” became such an unlikely hit; the spiritual biography of a man whose vocation intersected with the most powerful mass medium of the 20th century; the weaponization of that medium on behalf of polemic and consumerism; and the slow, sometimes contradictory path of a man who prized inclusiveness and community, but asked a gay colleague to stay in the closet or risk being fired.
But to his everlasting credit, Neville doesn’t stop there. Rather than a wistful look back at the way things used to be, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” leaves viewers wrestling with our own collective conscience in the here-and-now, contemplating our own commitment to the unconditional love and acceptance that Rogers championed so passionately. As an empathic, enlightened call to arms, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” winds up being as quietly, cozily radical as its subject.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains some mature thematic elements and strong language. 93 minutes.