I really hate when people say that we need a certain movie now, at this very moment in time, but that's exactly how I felt watching Morgan Neville's "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" or as some are calling it "The Mr. Rogers Doc." Yes, we live in a society filled with toxic cynicism, but a documentary on the sweetly endearing TV host Fred Rogers felt like such a breath of fresh air for this writer that I left the theater in a damn-near wondrous state.
That's part of the magic that comes in watching this doc about the former ordained minister who managed to find a place in the Television time-capsule with his TV show aimed at kids. 1,765 episodes from 1968 to 2001. That's the impact Rogers had on a nation currently looking for its own identity. Rogers died of cancer at 74 more than 15 years ago, but, good God, we really need him now.
Neville is no slouch when it comes to making feel-good documentaries ("20 Feet From Stardom"), but this one is truly special. There's an effortless simplicity that comes in the delivery, as Neville tells us the story of a man that always thought about the fate and future of the country's children. You can even see it in the priceless clips the director has chosen in exemplifying Rogers' abundantly giving heart. His shows ranged from the death of a pet to even the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, which affected him greatly but reminded him of his duties, no, his purpose, to educating young tykes nationwide.
At its core, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, was a rather easy show to make fun of, after all, there were no props, no effects, no colorful magic, nothing that was being broadcast on the other kids shows. No, it rather focused its attention on the small things in life, which, as we see, wind up being some of the most important lessons you could learn. Wearing his legendary Cardigan, Rogers' message could easily be heard in the opening song of his show: "So, let's make the most of this beautiful day/Since we're together we might as well say/Would you be mine?/Could you be mine?/Won't you be my neighbor?”
And so, the years passed and, despite mockery from nihilists, Rogers turned into a formidable TV figure for the ages, a man with integrity, manners, a moral compass that might seem foreign to today's audiences. Hell, here was a middle-aged man playing with puppet characters on-screen and never ridiculing the moment, especially when the morose-looking Daniel the Tiger would show up, a character that, Neville shows us, represented a more lonely and angry Rogers in puppet form. Before becoming a minister Rogers ha to deal with relentless bullying in school, as an overweight kid nicknamed "Fat Freddy" by the school kids.
Neville barely uses any soundbites from Rogers, who was said to be a rather private isolationist until his untimely death in 2003.
However, what cuts the deepest in this beautiful document of the man is when Neville decides to tackle school segregation, the African-American experience and how it impacted Rogers in the most touching of ways. All over the country, black families were being ousted out of public swimming pools, which gave an infuriated Rogers the idea of inviting his show's black neighborhood cop (François Clemmons), to share a footbath on camera. Americans were shocked, but others were being swooned and educated in the themes of acceptance and friendship by the simple cleaning of a foot.
Rogers' lack of cynism seems to have aged boldly and beautifully in today's narcissistic-filled media. Could a show like Mister Roger's Neighborhood really work in today's world, where even kids as young as 5 own an iPad? Probably not, but we sure could use him now, that's why Neville's film feels like a gift from the Gods above. The result is damn-near timeless.