As a 90’s kid growing up in rural Maine with no satellite or cable television (there still aren’t any options for cable out where I live), PBS was a staple of my childhood. Even at that time, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was a pillar of the network’s programming, and therefore a major influence for me during my early development. So, when I learned that there would be a documentary on life of Fred Rogers coming out this summer, it was immediately put at the top of my “must see” list. I will admit, as many have probably guessed, that I had fairly well formed opinions of the film prior to seeing it. However, I will argue that my current thoughts on Won’t You Be My Neighbor? are influenced by far more than mere nostalgia.
I won’t argue that the commentary of the film dug as deep as it possibly could. It is stated by one of the interviewees that, “If you take all the elements that make good television and do the exact opposite, you get Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood: low production values, simple set, and an unlikely hero.” The film paints Mr. Rogers as an underdog in television, which is true, but the real reasons for his success, while hinted at, are not fully explained or examined. I would argue that those elements are not the opposite of good television. They are opposite of what make popular television, television to pander to the masses and make money, but that’s not necessarily good television. This is one of the reasons I chose to focus my blog on movies coming out that most people might not have heard of, rather than the big blockbusters. Though I admit this might not always be the case with every film I review, I am looking for movies that have a purpose that goes beyond financial gain. Movies with a real message, that are more concerned with the amount of thought put into them than the amount of money. In my opinion, these are the elements of good television and good cinema, and are the very embodiment of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.
What the commentary of Won’t You Be My Neighbor may have lacked in critique, however, was made up for in content. It did an excellent job of covering the aspects of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood that made it such an incredible program. It showed how Mr. Rogers didn’t pander to short attention spans, but rather took his time. Each episode began with him just tying his shoes and feeding his fish. There was even an episode the film talked about where, in order to show children how long a minute was, Mr. Rogers set a timer for one minute and sat in complete silence while it ticked down. While this might seem strange, it developed patience. Mr. Rogers proved that he didn’t have to be flashy and try to constantly grab his audience’s attention. He could be natural and much more artistic. Another important aspect of the show that film talked about, was how Mr. Rogers focused on very important, yet mature themes. He talked about war, divorce, and death. He had an episode about assassination after Bobby Kennedy was killed, and came back after going off the air to talk about 9/11. While many might think that these themes are too mature for children, Mr. Rogers knew that they still affected their lives and that the secret was just knowing how to talk about them. Mr. Rogers had true respect for the intelligence of his audience, which is something rare in television and cinema geared towards a mature audience, and revolutionary in a program for children.
The movie used these themes to lead up to its closing idea, which was “What would Mr. Rogers have to say about events today?” As I said when I reviewed RGB, this blog is for discussing movies, not politics, no matter how tempting it might be. However, it is obvious that there has been a lot of conflict in politics lately, and a lot of things that children (or really anyone) find quite scary. After watching Won’t You Be My Neighbor, it is impossible not to wonder about what Fred Rogers would be telling children today. The movie leaves plenty of information about Mr. Rogers for the audience to think deeply about this question, without really answering it for them (though some of the interviewees do voice their thoughts about it).
In all, I really enjoyed the movie. It did a wonderful job of portraying the reasons why so many people like myself revere and respect Mr. Rogers as an artist, a philosopher, a teacher, and a person.