The Mr. Rogers documentary is a needed balm in desperate times.
RATING: ★★★★ (out of four stars)
Few people can pin you to your seat like Fred Rogers.
No, he’s not a fiery evangelical super-church pastor with a football-wide throat and sweat beads to fill a community pool. No, he’s not a big-eyed politician who throws out promises like free buttons at unsuspecting voters. No, he’s not a big-voiced huckster shelling out his snake elixir to whatever bald doofus wants a full head of hair again.
He’s a mild-mannered man in a sweater who plays with puppets and tells you that you matter.
In 2018, that’s the stunner that’ll leave a mark.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? walks softly and carries a big stick. It’s a tidal wave of emotions about a man who entered each episode of his beloved children’s show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood with the calm and ease of a gentle wave brushing past your feet. He’s the silent warrior of emotions that disarms you with compliments, and love. If this moment in history had a Pied Piper that would lead us all right back to where we belong, he would be named Fred, and would be oh, so glad you stopped by.
Director Morgan Neville gives audiences the SparkNotes on Rogers’ career, spanning from his days as a sickly, reserved child to one of entertainment’s most prolific voices. It’s as flattering a portrait as could be, very rarely taking detours into the darker aspects of Rogers’ life, but the darkness is easy to empathize with. This man is as close to a saint as you’re likely to see on a screen this year, and Neville raises the glass with proper respect and adoration. Fred Rogers was the man worthy of a thousand toasts.
What Rogers did was revolutionary. At a time where television was a budding medium, treating kids like lab rats for what would stick, and what would sell, the future public television icon wanted to make programming that would engage a child’s emotions, not just sell them the latest Ovaltine shake or toy gun. He wanted for kids to deal with the feelings they had deep down, to love the face they saw in the mirror, to extend the Golden Rule and a warm smile to whomever they ran into on the street. A minister at heart, Rogers wanted to use empathy as a motivator for his young audience. It was his vocation to send the trolley away to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.
He had a way with people that was uncanny, and unmatched. The famed Sen. John O. Pastore hearing for PBS funding feels like you’re watching a miracle: the gruff, unmoved Pastore’s complete visage dropping at a meek, unprepared Rogers saying the exact, piercing words of wisdom and love that gave public television its lifeblood. The way he worked with children was, in and of itself, a revelation — he treated them all at once like kings and queens and old friends, deserving of regal distinction and playful camaraderie. He treated his co-workers like they were working for free and were doing him a life’s favor. His loving wife and children nary had a bad thing to say, either, even if it was clear that Rogers had some trouble with transitioning out of his television aura at home.
His kindness is a balm that will stretch over his era to ours, and how fitting that Neville’s film comes in a time where knives at throats are more regular than bear hugs. There’s a rancid little clip from a Fox and Friends segment in the film that stands as the summer’s scariest villain. In it, the hosts garble back and forth about how Mr. Rogers’ message of self-worth and love “ruined” a generation into thinking they were entitled, the great excuse for life’s natural progressions. To them, the Neighborhood is where water crystallizes and forms one million snowflakes. It’s the wicked mirror into our malfeasance, where Fred Rogers’ ideals are seen as stumbling blocks to the powerful and mighty. No Trump Towers raise in this Neighborhood; only snowflakes fall there.
But, really, you sense the sadness in the clip, and wonder what a good talk with Rogers would do for these Fox and Friends. Maybe, they’d do well with Daniel Tiger, the conduit for Rogers’ own faults and fears. So often, bullying covers up longing for love. Fred Rogers never met a bully he couldn’t fix.
We needed an experience like this in 2018. There will be better films to come along, but few will carry the necessity. This one soaks over you like an antibiotic to an infection you didn’t even know you had. The affirming score by Jonathan Kirkscey lulls you in, the talking heads preach Fred’s gospel, and archival clips of Rogers tell you the words your soul longs for.
Don’t be surprised if the box of Kleenex is empty, and the theater is quite still by the time you say farewell to this neighbor. Just like Rogers, this quiet, empathetic act of reassurance will make you long for a world where there are more Rogers than Trumps, more songs about loving your friends than speeches about making America great again, more random acts of kindness than feats of strength.
Y’know, being a good neighbor isn’t just local to that little studio in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with the handmade sets and quaint puppetry. Maybe hold the door for someone on your way out of the theater, ask a stranger what they thought of the movie, cast a smile and a kind word to the college kid taking your order at dinner, maybe even secretly buy the ticket for the person behind you in the line out front, and tell them to enjoy the show before you go and get your popcorn.
Never have we so desperately needed a film to escape the screen. After all, this is documentary; not fiction.
Mr. Rogers isn’t just a television character; he’s an example.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is currently playing at The Belcourt.