Fred Rogers was my idol as a kid. As a sensitive, insecure, overzealous, eager-to-learn and super religious young man born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood was my neighborhood, both literally and figuratively. He taught me great values, which (hopefully) made me a better man. He stressed upon treating children as people, not absent-minded adolescents — ones capable of a great wealth of thoughts, feelings, and emotions beyond anyone’s understanding. Rogers told me about love, passion, acceptance, tolerable, sadness and curiosity. He also — through the indelible show and with his untimely passing — taught me about death too, both directly and indirectly, I’m afraid. He mournfully reminded me that no one — not even Mr. Rogers — was going to be around forever. You simply have to make the most of your time. And with that precious time, Mr. Rogers taught me that it’s best to be kind, caring, passionate, compassionate and, most of all, loving of all the various different people in your own neighborhood. I couldn’t have asked for a better role model than Mr. Rogers.
But Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood wasn’t solely my neighborhood, of course. Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood might’ve been based in my hometown, but it was a universal place —one filled with brustling creativity, childlike glee, gentle consideration and simple wonder. It might’ve been a little sound studio located in the heart of my great city, but it had the great power to be both very close and very far away — a genuine wonderland in my backyard that extended to a wondrous universe beyond the recesses of my own active imagination. Through Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, we were all transported somewhere both magical and familiar, a child-friendly playground with both splendid invigoration and grounded reality. It was a strange little concoction of differing styles that somehow, almost impossibly worked splendidly through the magic of Fred Rogers’ vigorous vision.
It’s a place only Mr. Rogers could dream into reality. It’s a singular work of inspiration that breathed life through Fred Rogers endless supply of warm-hearted generosity and open-hearted tenderness. In my opinion, our world is better with his neighborhood found inside. I can’t imagine a world without it, and I don’t want to know what a world without Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood would be. Mr. Roger’s Neighorhood is our home.
Fred Rogers passed away in 2003. I was 10 at the time, and life became a little darker. I realized even the good ones are taken away, that even great people won’t stay with us. I felt the world get colder that day. If it didn’t teach me death, then it was, nevertheless, my first true loss, the first time someone I loved so very much was really, truly gone. But he wasn’t gone entirely, of course. Mr. Roger’s Neighorhood would always stay here. But in the days and years since Fred Rogers left this earthly plain, his gracious presence is sorely absent. In 2018, the world can seem darker than ever. At least, that’s how I feel right now. We still need Fred Rogers. We still need his evergreen wisdom and guidance.
Morgan Neville’s heartfelt, celebratory Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is an expectedly flattering portrait of the beloved children’s television personality. Like Mr. Rogers, it is gentle, soft, lovely and incredibly sweet. Anything that might’ve been even the least bit critical of the endearing celebrity’s legacy is completely scrubbed away from this film’s examination. It’s striving only to remember Mr. Rogers for his rigorously pure, greatly touching and thoroughly unadulterated greatness. Neville’s latest film is a sympathetic, good-natured commemoration of the man adored by generations before, and an idol who will be revered for decades to come, thanks in part to this great little documentary. Whether or not it is entirely objectively true might not matter, because this little movie is exactly what our blackened hearts need to see. It’s a good reminder to be truly great.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is more interested in exploring Fred Rogers, the television personality, than Fred Rogers, the man. Talking head moments spend with his family briefly suggest that their home life was complicated, in part because Mr. Rogers had to always be Mr. Rogers —at least to some extent or another. It’s an intriguing angle left (mostly) unexplored, and while it’s a shame that we won’t know the full story of his life, it’s perhaps for the best that we preserve the legacy. Because Mr. Rogers, by practically any and all accounts, was a good and decent man. The caring man you saw to the TV wasn’t an act; there was a sincerity to Mr. Rogers’ sweetness, and it should be treasured.
Because in a world filled with ingrained negativity and cynicism, Mr. Rogers was really, truly nice. That’s nearly impossible to find, even in the most gracious of our neighbors. He was a hard-working, entirely decent individual who strived to make our lives better. Whether you met him on the street or only saw him on the screen, he enriched your life. There aren’t many people in this world who are that entirely selfless; Rogers was.
There’s nothing that will make our world better than fundamental niceness. So much crudeness, bleakness, and ugliness are inherently ingrained into our dreary lives. Fred Rogers had darkness in him, as Morgan Neville explores here. He wasn’t given a great childhood. His early days were filled with darkness and gloom. But Rogers didn’t turn to spite or vengeance. Instead, Rogers wanted to give children the childhood he never had. He strived to give everyone and anyone with a child’s heart the goodness he rarely had.
It’s that wholehearted strive to give himself wholly and completely to emotional charity that made Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood carry the undeniable legacy it holds with us today. There will be other children’s entertainment with better production values and greater marketing, but Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood was the real deal. It only wanted to give kids everywhere a chance to fulfill the hearts, encourage their minds and spread their joy. It was a wondrous program we sometimes take for granted. Neville, doesn’t, however; and we, the invested viewers, are made better by their collective drive for sheer generosity.