Won’t You Be My Neighbor? isn’t the best film of 2018, but I’m not sure I could have made it through the year without it.
Meanness and hostility have been amplified everywhere I go, from social media to the political arena to parking lots. Everyday adult life seems to have reverted back to preschool, when we were just beginning to learn that pushing and name-calling isn’t how we’re supposed to live together. So perhaps it’s appropriate that Fred Rogers—who spoke to American children for decades about living in harmony, even amidst fear, through his PBS program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood—returns some 15 years after his death in this documentary from director Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom). It’s hagiography, no doubt, but by all accounts of a man who deserved it.
Given such unimpeachable material, Neville doesn’t get too fancy in terms of the documentary form. There are some nice animated segments depicting Rogers as a man facing his own uncertainties, as well as a lovely montage of contemporary children watching footage of the show—which is reflected on their images—and smiling, as a voiceover from Rogers describes the space between the television and the viewer as holy ground (that Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister is no stray biographical fact).
Via talking-head interviews with colleagues, vintage clips, and behind-the-scenes footage, it becomes clear that Rogers’ gift was in recognizing that children’s feelings are as equally important as those of any adult. And this included their fears. In a 1981 episode, Rogers interviewed 5-year-old Jeff Erlanger about the nerve damage that had resulted in him needing a wheelchair. While they share a song of good cheer—“It’s You I Like”—the true Mister Rogers moment comes when Rogers observes, “There must be times when you do feel blue.” He emboldened kids by first recognizing that they were scared.
These are years of fear—some of it real, much of it fostered. And dominating our televisions is not a man willing to sit, cross-legged, amidst children, but one whose mocking of a reporter for his physical disability was part of his march to the American presidency. If that’s led you to occasionally despair, watch Won’t You Be My Neighbor? It will restore your faith in grace, goodness, and maybe—just maybe—even in humanity.