Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a thoughtful, celebratory documentary about the impact of the classic landmark series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The new documentary from filmmaker Morgan Neville, who previously directed the 2014 Academy Award winning documentary 20 Feet from Stardom, does not have a dull moment throughout the runtime. At times fascinating, other times jubilant, this celebrates the joyful soul that Fred Rogers was and the positive attitude the show was aiming towards. Be prepared to bring some tissues before you head into the theater.
In 1967, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was launched on a local Pittsburgh television station. Fred Rogers, the host of the show, wanted a show that was aimed at the very young age group, as a sort of educational tool to teach them values and talk to them as if they were just another person and not dumbing it down, like some children’s programming were doing at the time. Interspersed with archival footage of Fred are interviews from cast and crew involved with the show, as well as his wife and two kids. In a way, what people saw, and if you grew up on the show, were all aspects of Fred himself.
One of the great tactics Neville does with the documentary is the format that he uses when he interviews Fred’s family or the people who were closely involved with the show. The style of the interviews, and the documentary itself, employs a feel like the show itself. It connects with you, as if they’re talking to you, about the impact the show had on all their lives. The use of the archive footage was well put together, in that we feel like we’re inside of the room as it happens. Rather than have people talk about Fred’s philosophies, we hear from Fred himself about what he hoped to achieved. It was also quite fascinating that he was just about to become a minster before he came across a television, and switched career paths in an instant. Even though he made you feel comfortable, he got his message out more so than if he was a minster. Another item that they touched on was that even though he was a registered Republican, he didn’t make decisions based on his party, but on his faith. If we saw something taboo on the news, he would make it a point to showcase it on his show.
Using puppets and fantasyland, the show would tackle some big subject matters, like Vietnam and Robert Kennedy’s assassination. It also discussed some big questions, like what happens when someone dies. Fred, throughout it all, spoke to the kids in an impactful way, rather than trying to gloss over them. Speaking of puppets, the documentary points out that he couldn’t really express his feelings on his own, but rather used his puppets, like Daniel Striped Tiger, to express his actual thoughts, especially around his family. To further illustrate this, they use animation of Rogers as Daniel, which was effective at times. Another big question that the documentary talks about was if the Fred Rogers that people saw on TV was the real Fred Rogers in real life. The film’s answer to that is yes he was, and he’s someone that we don’t see that much anymore in television, if rarely.
The documentary primarily focuses on the show itself. Even though we do get to hear some aspects of his personal life, the film skims over certain aspects. At times I wanted them to go more in-depth with some of the avenues that they explored throughout the course of the film; I felt like they just didn’t pull back the mask enough. Don’t get me wrong, I thought the length was perfect, but at the end of it, I was ready for more. This documentary could have gone a million different ways, but for the most part, I think Neville went down the right route.
Overall, I truly believe that Won’t You Be My Neighbor? will be nominated for Best Documentary at next year’s Academy Awards. It’s that good of a documentary! We need figures like Mister Rogers in today’s age, since we live in a time of fake news and sometimes discontent. As Mister Rogers showed us on his show, and what the documentary points out, if we’re nice and kind to each other, the world could potentially be a better place to live. It’s a feel good film to watch with everyone, and when it comes to your area, I hope you seek this out. If you were a fan of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, then this is a must see. I would highly recommend checking this out in the theater!