Film Review: “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”

If there is one film everyone should go out and see right now, a feel-good yet socially meaningful film, it is the new documentary about Fred Rogers, a.k.a. “Mr. Rogers,” the beloved television host and children’s advocate. Morgan Neville’s film does not waste time going into much detail about the characters in the show or production; rather, it explores the interior life and personality of Fred Rogers, examining his character through his own life as well as the comments of others. The film really revolves around “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” as the representation and platform for Fred Rogers and his message.

What is so unique is that Rogers’s strength was in his quiet conviction. That often-mocked voice belied a Zen calm and integrity that was so powerful in its lack of aggression. Rogers was truly extraordinary for his time: a man who was willing to discuss emotions and feelings, to be genuine and authentic, and who truly treated children with complete dignity and respect and love. He was probably one of the best children’s advocates America has ever known. By listening to them, by validating them and including all of them, he fostered a sense of self-esteem that many critics have misunderstood. By telling children that each of them was “special,” he was not promoting narcissism or entitlement (which is what so much of today’s culture does). What he was trying to do was to make children feel a core of self-esteem and self-worth that was not contingent upon external appearances or achievement, to teach everyone that they are lovable even when they felt flawed. His ideas are worth revisiting as adults.

There are and were children who disliked Mr. Rogers, even when I was small. I can only attribute this to a dislike of that which is genuine, sensitive, and vulnerable. Fred Rogers was kind, by all accounts. He operated from deeply Christian principles, as well as a strong sense of having felt invalidated as a child by family and peers. The documentary so beautifully captures all of the emotions around the man, and his many talents. My one chief criticism of the film is that it could have featured much more about the music on his program. The songs were a major vehicle for conveying his messages of self-love, empathy, etc. and the lovely melodies and jazz arrangements (not to mention that heartwarming celesta that functions as deeply as any olfactory memory) remain in our minds’ ears and hearts even as adults. Perhaps the most extraordinary moment of the documentary is seeing him win over Congress with his sincerity, reading the lyrics to a song. It would also have been nice to hear commentary from other cast members, but perhaps they declined to participate or may be deceased.

In any case, this film is a must see for anyone who grew up with Mr. Rogers and has fond memories of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Or perhaps simply a must-see for anyone in these miserable, hardened, extremist, cynical times.

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