“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is a depressingly good documentary about a singularly empathetic television personality. Fred Rogers (1928-2003) knew what he was up against in a culture, and an economy, built on marketable aggression. Against long odds he prevailed. Now he belongs to another time. Can his spirit of gentle reassurance possibly be revived, in any form?
I wish I were more optimistic. The “bombardment” Rogers once described as commercial children’s programming, designed as he saw it to turn them into slavish consumers, has now been amped up by digital addictions we’ve barely begun to process. One interview subject in director Morgan Neville’s documentary says it plainly: Today, “there isn’t room on TV for a nice person.”
Premiering in 1968, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” offered a reliable security blanket to millions of young viewers. The ordained Presbyterian minister, husband and father seemed so unapologetically sincere, everyone assumed he must be hiding something. Without undue fawning, Neville’s moving portrait does a lovely job of presenting Rogers as two people, the public figure and the private one, sharing the same closet full of zip-up sweaters.
He was a rather pudgy child, and he was bullied for it. He grew up in a household of means and loved music from an early age. He was ill a lot of the time, and quarantined; his isolation fed his imagination, and his relatable feelings of insecurity and loneliness became the secret ingredient of the success that never entirely calmed his own feelings of inadequacy or creative panic, as “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” reveals.
This is carefully handled by Neville in a brisk nonfiction account, catnip for anyone with even passing affection for Rogers and his show. I didn’t watch it much as a kid; I was already more susceptible to the benign but wisecrack-laden parodies of “Sesame Street” and “The Electric Company,” also aired on PBS. Yet while watching “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” I was surprised at the emotional impact of simply hearing Rogers sing his own indelible theme song once again.
The documentary features interviews with Rogers’ widow, Joanne; his sons James and John, one of whom recalls, wryly, a childhood with “a second Christ” for a father; and various co-workers, among them Francois Clemmons, who played the neighborhood police officer on the long-running program. Clemmons lived a closeted life for years, and Rogers was not initially supportive of his coming out. Then he was. For the record, rumors of Rogers’ sexuality were bogus, Clemmons says: “If he was gay, I would’ve known.”
He succeeded long enough to turn into an easy punchline, a target for lampoons and satire. (Clips from “Saturday Night Live” and “SCTV” are included in the documentary.) Like “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz, whose own sensibility was darker, Rogers had a direct line to the misunderstood 20th-century American child. He also responded to the ideas regarding child psychology and early childhood development pushed into the national conversation by Dr. Benjamin Spock and others. The puppets Rogers created, the nerve he displayed in addressing concepts of prejudice and even political assassination on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” — everything was an extension of Rogers’ particular skill in letting his viewers know that they weren’t alone in their anxieties.
It’s possible, I suppose, to enjoy the film outside a political context. But you’d have to work very, very hard at it. “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” debuted in the fantastically divided year of 1968. One year later, then-President Richard M. Nixon threatened to cut the nascent public broadcasting budget in half. Rogers spoke before a U.S. Senate subcommittee weighing the yea or nay on the value of national public television.
Addressing the initially skeptical subcommittee chairman, Sen. John Pastore, the lifelong Republican Rogers talks about his desire to give children a respite from the rest of the noise. In a few short, earnest, wholly effective minutes, Rogers secured $20 million in public broadcasting funding. Highlights from that 1969 hearing come early in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
Neville’s previous work, notably “Twenty Feet From Stardom” (2012) and “Best of Enemies” (2015), revealed a filmmaker of easy humanity and a fine sense of humor. He was perfect, therefore, for this assignment. If the results are bittersweet, even depressing, it’s only because the current president — the embodiment of every uncivil, unkind, uncaring impulse Fred Rogers opposed — wants to eliminate the very thing Mr. Rogers helped save.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
"Won't You Be My Neighbor?" -- 3.5 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some thematic elements and language)
Running time: 1:34