“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is a warm, nostalgic look back at the life and career of Fred Rogers, and his signature children’s program, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” But the new documentary also contemplates the beloved TV host’s battle on behalf of kindness and civility, one whose outcome appears very much in doubt.
Directed by Morgan Neville, the movie’s release is certainly timely – coming a half-century after the PBS show expanded from its local roots to a national platform, and including clips of a June 7, 1968 primetime special in which Rogers spoke directly to kids about their feelings and fears in the wake of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination.
Rogers championed using TV as a positive force, resisting the media tide that sees children as little more than tiny consumers, to be exploited for advertising purposes. A priceless old clip shows an ad in which a TV character passes realistic-looking guns through the screen into the hands of the eager young boys watching.
“Television has the chance of building a real community out of an entire country,” Rogers says in one of the many interviews featured.
Yet the values that Rogers taught in his soothing, understated manner – seeking to make children feel special, loved and safe – are also shown being derided during a “Fox & Friends” segment, one in which the hosts blame Rogers’ approach for fostering feelings of entitlement among the current generation of millennials.
For Fox’s older, conservative audience it’s essentially a bingo twice over, ridiculing not only naïve youths but public broadcasting, which, as the movie shows, was targeted for funding cuts then by the Nixon administration, just as it is now. (Rogers is shown, in a famous moment, delivering a pitch to safeguard PBS before a Senate Committee.)
Despite a genial demeanor that colleagues describe as extending off screen as well as on, Rogers remained a passionate advocate on these issues. The goal, he said, was to offer a balancing weight against the spate of flashier fare aimed at children and to “make goodness attractive.”
The fact that so many still harbor fond, enduring memories of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” – illustrated by genuinely heartwarming sequences within the film – certainly suggests there were victories on that score. But amid a cacophony of available media and a partisan climate filled with angry, divisive voices, the ideals that Rogers espoused about TV being a tool to help foster a sense of community appear sadly quaint, and perhaps outdated.
Writer Tom Junod – a friend of the host, whose Esquire profile of Rogers will provide the foundation for an upcoming movie starring Tom Hanks – alludes to those more intemperate forces by asking, regarding Rogers’ lingering lessons, “whether his attempt to influence America succeeded or not.”
In his director’s statement, Neville notes that he told Rogers’ widow, Joanne, that he “wanted to make a film not about Fred Rogers’ story but about his ideas.” Those ideas – advanced by a program that ran more than 30 years – have clearly outlived the man,
even if, at times, it feels like they face a decidedly uphill struggle.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” opens in select theaters on June 8.