"WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?" — 3½ stars — Joanne Rogers, Fred Rogers (archive footage), Kailyn Davis; PG-13 for some mild profanity and discussions of adult themes, including war, racism and assassination; in general release
Editor's note: This review originally ran in January 2018 as part of the Deseret News' 2018 Sundance Film Festival coverage.
In the context of 2018, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” will leave you feeling we could all use another Fred Rogers in our lives.
Morgan Neville’s documentary is everything you’d want from a profile on the man behind longtime PBS television program “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” It’s insightful, charming, thoughtful and compelling.
The documentary, which premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival and is now in wide release, opens with a piece of grainy, behind-the-scenes black-and-white footage from 1967. Seated behind a piano, an impeccably clean-cut Rogers shares the mission statement for his career: to “help children through some of the difficult modulations of life.”
Rogers insists that love is the motivation behind all of his work, and based on the evidence in Neville’s film, it’s easy to believe him.
Neville picks up Rogers’ story as the lure of television sidetracked him from his original plan to become a Presbyterian minister. Convinced the medium had powerful potential for good — and disgusted by the clowning antics he saw on TV at the time — Rogers started working on a show called “The Children’s Corner” and eventually launched “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” in 1968.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” shows us how different signature items for the show — including Rogers’ trademark sweaters and sneakers — were worked into the program and shares the inspiration behind elements such as the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.
Along the way, Neville paints a compelling portrait of one of the most truly unique personalities to grace the television screen. We see Rogers’ sincere love of children, but we also see how certain parts of the show were an extension of his own fears and weaknesses. (His wife, Joanne, explains that of all the characters on the show, the puppet Daniel Tiger was the one who spoke most directly for her husband.)
The documentary is packed with charming moments, such as when longtime talk show veteran Tom Snyder asks Rogers, “Are you a square?” or when Rogers almost single-handedly secures a $20 million endowment for PBS with his heartfelt testimony before Sen. John Pastore.
We also get a glimpse of how "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" tried to respond to current events, such as the assassination of Sen. Robert Kennedy in 1968 or the Challenger explosion in 1986, and the film even delves into questions of whether Rogers was gay (he wasn’t) or a former Navy SEAL (he wasn’t).6 comments on this story
Interviews with Joanne, Rogers’ sons and co-workers — including Francois Scarborough Clemmons (who played Officer Clemmons) — reaffirm that Rogers was every bit the unique personality off camera as he was on camera. Neville does a solid job of striking an important balance between being inquisitive and respectful, which keeps “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” from becoming a gushing tribute or a cynical hit piece.
Whether portraying how Rogers used 60 seconds of dead air time to show kids the length of a minute or how he spoke to Snyder through a tiger puppet, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” frequently leaves you shaking your head in wonder at how Rogers, who died in 2003, was able to pull off his vision.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is rated PG-13 for some mild profanity and discussions of adult themes, including war, racism and assassination; running time: 93 minutes.