“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and Mister Rogers Insist Humanity Can Be Better Than This
If your cold, cold heart doesn’t melt at some point during Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the documentary about Fred “Mister” Rogers, well, I don’t know what to do for you. Watching this movie is like freebasing sincerity — a scarce resource in our current entertainment hellscape. It’ll give you warm fuzzies for days.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? takes us back to an honest-to-God simpler time, when the idea of a minister with an “abiding interest in children,” as one newscaster describes Rogers in the doc, didn’t immediately raise eyebrows. Early in the film, the late Rogers — whose legendary children’s show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, aired for more than thirty years starting in 1968 — expresses his desire to help children make sense of the world “through the mass media.” He made this comment back when television was still a fairly newfangled technology, and when a few well-intentioned folks like Mister Rogers thought to use “mass media” to spread wholesome education rather than dogged consumerism.
Through archival footage of Rogers both on and off the set of his iconic show, as well as interviews with his family, friends, and former crew members, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? draws a flattering yet complex portrait of its subject, who died of cancer in 2003. What is most remarkable is Rogers’s grasp, even in the medium’s nascent years, of how television can shape young minds. “What we see and hear on the screen is part of who we become,” he insisted. Rogers understood, earlier than most, that television — that oh-so-intimate medium that catches us at home, unguarded, the screen perhaps just inches away from our faces — profoundly alters the way we see one another and ourselves. “Television,” young Rogers argued, “has the chance of building a real community out of an entire country.”