Fred Rogers died in 2003. It’s hard to imagine what he would think of the world today. It’s hard to imagine how his simple, well-meaning message could be perverted and used to hurt him. It’s hard to imagine a man like him being around children for so long without people wondering about what’s really going on.
Thanks to Won’t You Be My Neighbor, we don’t really have to imagine these things. In a film with many specific strengths, perhaps its most impressive is the breadth of information and perspectives 20 Feet from Stardom director Morgan Neville accomplishes in only 95 minutes. We learn the history, we learn the man, we even get taught a lesson as adults not too dissimilar to the kind Rogers tried to teach us as children.
Neville tells this story through a ton of archival footage, talking head interviews from friends, family members and those who worked with Rogers, and metaphorical animated sequences that threaten to bruise your heart once the film explains their significance. It’s not wildly abstract, but it’s not quite a typical documentary either. You don’t realize until later how much the editing and structure teaches you along the way.
Rogers himself does not provide a changing dynamic. Though he privately had battles with confidence, his message and treatment of others rarely change. We see him take bolder approaches to help children confront the challenges of their times (Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination, the Challenger tragedy), but it’s all in keeping with the man’s strong desire to make the world a better place through the power of television. We realize in a truly emotional sequence that Won’t You Be My Neighbor might be less about Rogers than those he left behind, and that includes most of us.
But Rogers is fascinating. For his amazing altruism, patience and ability to connect with children using little more than kindness, puppets, even straight-up silence, we come away with a sense that this person was something more than human. The film then refutes this a couple different ways. One is by sharing some on-set stories with people who got along with Rogers despite not being saints themselves. Where we may assume Rogers lacked the kind of uncontrollable emotions we all struggle with, we learn how he channeled this into his puppet characters, or sometimes confronted it head-on in his monologues. And two, the film makes a strong case that people like Rogers are actually all over the place and guide our lives in ways we sometimes don’t appreciate. They’re just not on television.
We also see a bit of the world we live in now seeping in around Rogers, as media-types take him to task for teaching children they are all special and ushering in a participation trophy era for America. But of course, he has an answer for that, one that should bring shame to anyone who brings it up.
The film also confronts the many stories people spread about Rogers as an attempt to understand him through invented controversy. Rogers had tattoos, Rogers went to war and killed many people, Rogers was gay. None of which is true. The film doesn’t shy away from complications, either, though. A black gay cast member tells the story of how Rogers told him he can’t come out of the closet and remain on the show. Even this black eye on Rogers’ reputation has something of a happy ending, however, as the same cast member comes to tears explaining how much Rogers meant to him as a father figure. And then Rogers’ wife casually confirms to her interviewer that she and Fred had tons of gay friends.
It’s an interesting interlude that helps keep the film from being 100% worship of a man far better than many of us could hope to be. This is an informative documentary, but it’s more special than that, not some generic presentation of an interesting subject. Plenty of good documentaries get by on that alone. This one is a cut above.